By Alexander Wallace
Regular readers of my work on this blog will know how fond I am of Liam Connell’s exhortation to write alternate history about “peasants, not kings.” Those readers may also have realized that most of the alternate history I read and write is concerned with twentieth century events. With that said, I am aware of how abnormal Brent Olson’s novel Between the Helpless and the Darkness is for me: its main character is a literal king, and it is set in the eleventh century.
That king is Harald Hardrada, the King of Norway who tried to conquer England but was killed by Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. In the world that Olson has created, Harald Hardrada still loses at Stamford Bridge, but survives. He retreats in ignominious defeat with his surviving men, and they leave England in their ships. Some return to Norway. The others, led by Harald, set course to the west, towards Vinland.
The royal focus of the book does not mean that it is a dull tale of courts and political maneuvering; Olson’s Harald is a fully fleshed-out character. He is a man who has been defeated in what should have been his greatest victory, having to reckon with the fact that he has not much to show for all the blood and treasure he has spent. He makes the voyage to Vinland partially out of a desire to make something of himself, but also a desire to change himself; he tells multiple characters that he has tired of war.
But Harald is not the only character that Olson has realized. These include people who are Harald’s confidants, likewise somewhat melancholy over their defeat at Stamford Bridge. There are also younger, less ranked Norsemen and Norsewomen, one of whom tried to kill Harald, and another who is the daughter of a man that he hates. Through all these characters, you get a compelling portrait of a society composed of ships, not wholly of Norway but not wholly of their new home, either.
Between the Helpless and the Darkness quite impressed me in another way: the economy of its writing. Alternate history, as a genre, has an unfortunate but predictable tendency towards bloat and bloviation, as the worldbuilding forms so much of the reason for writing. Not so with Olson; the story is laser-focused on a fairly small group of characters and their psychological states. I finished this novel with the distinct and pleasant impression that not a scene was unnecessary, and not a word was wasted. It is a fantastically paced book.
That pacing really shows when they arrive in Vinland more than halfway through the book, but you don’t feel that the journey there was unnecessary. It is Vinland, though, where the book reaps the fruit that the setup has sown. The contact between the Norse and the indigenous peoples is done in a way that showcases humanity on both sides of the divide, never devolving into racist claptrap. It reminded me very strongly of David Oliver-Godric’s novel Metamorphosis, reviewed on the Sea Lion Press blog by my colleague Adam Selby-Martin. What struck me so much about this first contact is how altruistic it is; it is not a story of instant genocidal madness, but one that comes to be by virtue of human kindness. It’s a daring thing to do in a genre as warlike as ours.
I use some heavy words here, but they are merited: Between the Helpless and the Darkness is one of the best alternate history novels I have ever read. Olson shows craftsmanship beyond most work in the genre, and the end result is a compelling story while never sacrificing the benefits of an explicitly alternate history work. It should be read by anyone who wants to write in this genre.