Tom Holt’s Who’s Afraid of Beowulf? is a silly caper story involving a hidden cache of Norsemen, an archaeology graduate student, and their journey together through Britain while trying not to gather too much attention — and failing. It’s a story that reminds me of Terry Pratchett’s DiscWorld books, which means that it was an entertaining read involving quirky characters and a kooky plot. This is a good thing.
The entire thing starts with the discovery of a Norse ship uncovered by a construction crew in Scotland. A rather naive grad student, Hildy Frederiksen, is sent to check it out. She’s excited to see that the boat is a complete specimen, goes back to her hotel, and then gets the urge to return to the mound. Once there, she discovers the crew of the boat awake and walking around, which they most certainly should not be doing, having been buried there for twelve hundred years.
The crew really is a well-honed battle group whose slumber has been in place merely until the time is right to prevent a particularly bad person from doing … well, something particularly bad. Hildy takes on the responsibility of finding food and clothing for the men, as well as shuttling them around and getting them acquainted with the modern world. This last task, surprisingly, isn’t as hard as it would seem. The Norsemen take modern technology in stride, thinking it the same as their magic; most likely it is, seeing as they have brooches they connect to electrically-charged chthonic spirits to make things happen.
Mixed in here is the story of Danny Bennett, a fluff-piece reporter who earnestly wishes to write something more substantial. He stumbles on the Norse gentlemen, and his future gets entwined with theirs. Also making an appearance is the enemy’s guy Friday, whose experiences help to fill in a little back story (and provides for some nail-biting).
I think this book is really quite good. The writing is light, pulling just short of treating the plot as inconsequential. Holt manages to give us a full story with some endearing characters experiencing something very surreal without it feeling like a fairy tale, which is nice. The end feels as realistic as possible for a fantasy tale; things aren’t perfect, but they turn up good at the end.
A couple of things were a little off with the book, though. I didn’t quite get why we needed the chthonic spirits (other than to give the plot something to turn on). If they’re basically little living batteries, why can’t they use batteries when they discover them missing? They managed to do that with the other brooch, so that was a little confusing.
I also felt like the book was a little light on substance. It’s one thing to have a breezy feel. It’s quite another to whisk the reader by points before they get a chance to sink in. A slightly slower pace would have made Who’s Afraid of Beowulf? a little better.
The last problem I have with the book is that, without an interest in Norse history and literature, you might be a little lost during some sections of the book. Sure, the person might know “Viking”, but I’m not sure how many know the mythology, the Eddas, and the sagas well enough to pull out some of the more interesting bits of the story.
Overall, though, Holt put together a delightfully humorous story about Norsemen in modern-day Britain. This makes him okay in my book.