Tenth-century Iceland. In the darkness of midwinter, two friends set out on an adventure but end up killing a man.
Kjaran, a travelling poet who trades songs for food and shelter, and Gunnar, a feared warrior, must make a choice: conceal the deed or confess to the crime and pay the blood price to the family. For the right reasons, they make the wrong choice.
Their fateful decision leads to a brutal feud: one man is outlawed, free to be killed by anyone without consequence;the other remorselessly hunted by the dead man’s kin.
Set in a world of ice and snow, Smile of the Wolf is an epic story of exile and revenge, of duels and betrayals, and two friends struggling to survive in a desolate landscape, where honour is the only code that men abide by.
I read The Smile of the Wolf on my Kindle
Set in 11th century Iceland, the narrative takes the form of an epic tale or saga from the storyteller’s past, told during a long Winter, for entertainment purposes during the relentless, never-ending darkness of both days and nights in the Frozen north.
The Storyteller, Kjaran, is a skald, a skilled poet and singer whose talents have kept him alive in the past. It is a tragic story of accidental murder and pig-headed feuding:
‘But you are a fool if you continue the killing..’
‘And a coward if I do not.’
‘And there is the trap…’
We are told of the desolate, desperate life of an outlaw in the icy mountains of central Iceland and the tragedy of returning to society to find the feud has continued and your friends have suffered immeasurably. The pride and stubbornness of the men of this time and their passionate bloodlust is conveyed well through the author’s skillful characterisation:
“There is a longing of a man who faces hopeless odds in battle. It is the longing to kill one man at least, to not die without spilling the blood of one who has come for you. You have killed one, the mind seems to say, and that is enough. Lie down and die if you wish, for you have done enough.”
Revenge drives these characters and despite its lawful conclusion, there seems no possible end to the feud, which is so central to this story that it takes on a life of its own:
‘Be patient. The slave takes revenge at once—‘
‘But the coward never does,’ he said, finishing the proverb for me.
The prose is beautifully descriptive and poetically written. It is easy to imagine the cruel, snowy, glacial landscapes of the central mountains and the lush green of the Salmon River valley. I found myself feeling chilly while I read the descriptions of Kjaran in the mountains, suffering so badly from the austere temperatures that he loses his fingers:
“The pain of the cold was akin to nothing I had felt before and I bit the folds of my cloak to keep myself from crying out. Then abruptly, like the striking of lightning against the ground, I felt nothing at all.”
As much as I loved my trip to Iceland in the twentieth century I most definitely would not like to have been there during the eleventh century as described here. A harsh, unforgiving country filled with harsh, unforgiving people.
The story is slow paced but not easy to put down. I would recommend The Smile of the Wolf to lovers of historical fiction, descriptive imagery and people who don’t mind feeling a little cold while they read (grab a blanket before you begin).
About the author
Writer, climber, whisky drinker, chess dabbler and general purpose layabout. London exile currently encamped in the North and loving it. I’ve studied and taught creative writing at the University of Warwick and worked in bookshops in London and Greece.
If you’d like to know any more about me or my books, just ping me a message. Thanks for stopping by!