Reviews of Saga
“As focussed as Jane Austen, as macabre as Stephen King, Jeff Janoda traces out the hidden springs of power in the micro-society of an Icelandic fjord. He tells a tale of complex feud with all the fullness and detail of a modern novel, but leaves its violent and treacherous heroes as enigmatic as before. A brilliant blend of scholarship and insight.”
Thomas Shippey, author of J.R.R Tolkien: Author of the Century.
“This detail-rich novel is a retelling of a thirteenth-century Icelandic saga written by an unknown author. The original document arises from the colonization of Iceland by Norwegian settlers, and this particular tale unfolds before the enticed reader’s eye as an intriguing concoction of abject realism (the day-to-day livelihood as practiced by the colonizers is explained, and the physical features of the land are beautifully described) and flights of fantasy (elves are co-populates of the Iceland presented here). The storyline is essentially about land—who owns it, who disputes the ownership of it—in this hardscrabble agrarian society, where inheritance of land means everything, and honor, and necessary revenge against those who would besmirch it, are the essential tenets of life. Tribal organization and clan government are opened to contemporary viewing and appreciation. With the author’s ability to pump viability into the character, the novel does what good historical fiction is supposed to do: put a face on history that is recognizable to us all.”
Booklist, May 15, 2005
Jeff Janoda proves himself to be a master storyteller as he brings tenth-century Iceland brilliantly to life. SAGA is a powerful and absorbing read, rich and authentic in detail, sharply insightful, and brimming with finely rendered characters whose lives are intricately bound through the ties of loyalty, kinship, duty, and, above all, the Law.
Janoda deftly handles the complexities and harsh realities of life in the early Free State, peeling away layers of motives and shrewd cunning that drives men’s actions — be it born of wisdom, high ideals, and ethical strength; greed and a lust for power and land that leads to treachery, betrayal, and bloodshed; or a more basic need to appease the gods and dark spirits that haunt the land and even, at times, the restless wanderings of the dead. This is storytelling at its best. In short, SAGA is superb!
-Anita Gordon (writing as Kathleen Kirkwood), author of “The Heart Trilogy”
“Jeff Janoda’s Saga is the novelized retelling of “The Saga of the People of Eyri” written by a nameless Norseman around 1270 AD. Set in 10th century Iceland, the novel weaves a darkly grim narrative tapestry, the component threads of which are the lives of chieftains, slaves, farmers, warriors and fishermen, each struggling to prosper in a harsh land that is convincingly rendered through Janoda’s obviously extensive research into medieval Icelandic culture.
Foremost in importance both to the story and in the lives of its characters is the annual “Thing”, a legal assembly for redressing wrongs—complete with elected jurors—that stood out in stark contrast to the less progressive forms of justice existing in the wider world of feudal Europe. It is within this surprisingly egalitarian social structure that the characters enter into a struggle over control of the precious land available to them on this unforgiving island of rock and ice. This is not to say that strength of arms, treachery, and even a ritualistic adherence to practices founded in both religion and cultural superstition do not come into play, but these elements simply augment the struggle which is ultimately one of political, economic, and legal machinations.
Most impressive is the manner in which Janoda manages to shift among the various characters’ perspectives, keeping the reader emotionally invested in the story without ever really establishing clear heroes or villains. Rather, like people in the real world, each character possesses virtues and flaws, and one finds oneself sympathizing with characters whom initially seemed villainous while simultaneously finding it difficult to relish the victories of the would-be protagonists in situations where the ends don’t always seem to justify the means. The result is far from an easy read; the journey from cover to cover is variously uncomfortable, emotionally taxing, and quietly unsettling, but it is a compelling and ultimately rewarding experience.
And, too, while the ambiguity in terms of protagonist is initially disconcerting in terms of its variation from the literary norm, the more the reader learns about the culture of the medieval Icelandic Free State, the more it becomes apparent that this approach is particularly well suited to the subject matter. At one point in the story, a visiting Norwegian merchant is dumbfounded by the fact that the people of Iceland eschew the more warlike approach to dispute resolution practiced elsewhere in the world. A chieftain provides the merchant with the following answer: “We are too tightly woven in the Free State to march off and slay each other in long lines, shield beside shield. Our enemy is often our best ally’s cousin, or uncle. It is good and wise and altogether a manly thing to protect oneself within the Law, with others to argue for you, and seek an answer which gives everyone honor.” It is the insularity of Iceland, the shared burden of living and working with each other to eke out life from the wintry soil and the surrounding sea, that allows such a system to work—indeed that forces such a system into place. This system is artfully mirrored by Janoda’s unconventional narrative choice.”
Editor: Paradox Historical and Speculative Fiction Magazine, Summer 2005
“This debut novel is a masterful retelling of the Icelandic Eyrbyggja Saga, originally written down around 1250. Medieval Iceland was unique in its form of government, which was based on allegiance to chieftains and adherance to law rather than on a feudal system. Saga tells the story of two rival chieftains, Snorri and Arnkel, and their quest for land and loyalty. They are “gothi,” sacerdotal rulers to whom men swear allegiance and in turn receive protection. The characters are as central to the narrative as Iceland’s wild and barren terrain; in this place and time, land is everything, and a man is nothing without it. Janoda’s rendering of the physical and intellectual landscape is effortless, belying the many years of scholarship that must have gone into this work. One hopes that this excellent piece of historical fiction will find a wider audience than its esoteric subject matter might suggest. Highly recommended.”
-Library Journal (Wendt Bethel)
If the mob bosses of The Sopranos spoke Old Norse and wore chain mail, they would feel right at home in this absorbing historical melodrama. In the harsh environs of Iceland’s Swan’s Fjord, circa 965, the inhabitants live by their wits. At the top of the heap are two rival chieftains, the intimidating warrior Arnkel and the cagey operator Snorri. Their power rests occasionally on the sword, but more fundamentally on their influence over their bands of followers, or Thingmen, whom they control through patronage, elaborate webs of favors and debts and their formal role in settling (for a fee) the many disputes that arise in Iceland’s intensely litigious society. Surrounding them—jockeying for position in a Machiavellian world of mead-hall conspiracies, double and triple crosses, surreptitious murders and poisoned gifts of honey—is a sprawling cast of characters, including Arnkel’s conscience-stricken chief henchman Thorgils, the sons of Thorbrand, battling Arnkel for their land, and honest farmer Ulfars and his wife Auln, tragically caught up in machinations they cannot fathom. In Iceland’s austere terrain, with its meager margin of agricultural subsistence, they struggle over the brute necessities of life: fish, cows, hay and, most of all, trees, which are worth their weight in gold.
Debut novelist Janoda paints a richly textured portrait of Icelandic culture, from the daily routine of farm chores to the protocols of pagan ritual sacrifice. The intricate but well-paced narrative, based on a traditional Icelandic saga, moves grimly forward, brimming with multigenerational cycles of bloodshed and vengeance set against a backdrop of ghostly apparitions and elvish malevolence that symbolize the dark, tectonic forces of human greed and rage. Despite the archaic setting, Janoda manages to imbue his characters with believable psychologies and motivations. A gripping recreation of an ancient genre.