Book review

Bloodtide by Melvin Burgess (1999)

A Viking saga brought to life! Meet the gods, Odin and Loki, join in a blood feud, keep a shapechanger for a pet and beware the terrifying halfmen. This is an amazingly powerful book - but it isn't for everyone. To survive the betrayal, blackmail, violence and sex you need to be a mature teenage reader.

If you've ever read Beowulf you may know what I mean if I say that a story like that can show its age. Although Beowulf slays the monster Grendel, we in the twentyfirst century are not exactly frightened to death by the monster. What Melvin Burgess manages to do is to take just such a story and put all the fear and loathing back into it for a modern audience. How does he do this?

Well, he sets the story in a distant future when London has been completely taken over by warring ganglord families. The whole city of London has been abandoned by the democratic government and a wall has gone up round the perimeter, to keep the gangs in. Two families have split London between themselves, the Volsons and the Conors, and so here we have the perfect setting for a modern blood feud. In the true Viking tradition, the violence is excessive.

The wall, which has been built around London, not only keeps the gangs in but also keeps out the terrifying halfmen. These are not just a figment of a Viking imagination reproduced for us a thousand years later. Halfmen are the product of genetic research and experimentation. Revolting mixtures of animals and humans with added synthetic bits have been created, originally to terrify the inhabitants of the new separate London and keep them back behind their wall. Halfmen feed on human sacrifices and live in a kind of no-one's land, a strip of territory surrounding London. So here we have a credible monster of our own making. Beyond that some kind of life goes on in other cities more or less like our own modern life.

Once all that background is in place it doesn't seem at all surprising that the ordinary people should start to believe in the old gods again. In a fantastic sequence at a wedding feast to seal a truce between the two families, Odin appears. He is truly awesome, but we share the doubt of some of the more thoughtful characters at first - is this a god returned to earth or is it a robot of some kind? He is an all-powerful being and we, the readers, begin to understand how a Viking might have felt in the presence of his gods. I'm sure that by the time you are halfway through this book you will know as well as I do that this is Odin, the god, himself. Similarly, Loki the god of mischief and his shapechanger daughter, Cherry - you will be so caught up in this story you won't question their existence at all.

This is a complex book told by many different voices as the action progresses. And as well as all the fantastic characters there is real human drama and emotional development. Revenge is a terrible thing to live with for a lifetime as both Signy and Siggy Volson discover.

I was absolutely gripped by this book from the first page.

What can I read next?

Melvin Burgess has written several books. If you read and enjoy Bloodtide, you might consider looking at this one also for older readers by Melvin Burgess:

Otherwise, Bloodtide is one of those books which it is quite difficult to follow. If the ghastly view of London in the future attracts you, you might like to look at this one by Rachel Anderson:

If you enjoy the epic, adult level of Bloodtide, I can recommend this one by Jan Mark:

Also this time travel one by Susan Price:

And if, for you, the point about Bloodtide is the retelling of an old story, you could look at this one by Adele Geras:

Of course, Bloodtide is a retelling of an Icelandic saga, and if you are a mature reader you might like to look at the Icelandic sagas available in the Penguin Classics range. They are everything you might expect: rowdy, violent stories of lust and revenge, and much more readable than you might imagine.

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