"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.”

Brad Hooper, 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 tot 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.”

-Christopher Cevasco

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."

-Wendy Bethel

Library Journal

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.

—Kirkus

THE ROCKAWAY IRREGULAR
by Stuart W. Mirsky

SOMETHING DIFFERENT

Readers of this column will know that I don't usually review books here, though I once discussed a book I'd read as part of making a larger political point (which is what this column is usually about). Some will also know that I'm an historical novelist of sorts, having published one such tale, some years back, and being busy working on another. My completed novel is about the Norse visits to our shores roughly a thousand years ago and, as such, is grounded in the old Norse saga literature I've always loved. Which brings me to my review.

Not long ago someone e-mailed me information about a new historical novel that's based, as mine was, on the old sagas. Not too keen on re-immersing myself in the Norse world (as it works against my current project), I wasn't going to bother with it. But something about the novel's description caught my eye. It was presented as a modern rendering of the Eyrbyggja Saga. I just couldn't resist seeing how the author had handled that since I faced a similar challenge when I wrote my own viking novel. I ordered it from amazon (couldn't find it in any of the local bookstores) and waited more than a month for my copy to arrive. When it finally came, I plunged right in. I wasn't disappointed.

Jeff Janoda has written a fine piece of fiction, with this, his first novel. Saga: A Novel of Medieval Iceland (published by Academy Chicago Press) is moving and powerful and as true as anyone can ever hope to come to the feel and spirit of the old sagas. Of course, I approached the book with some preconceptions and personal prejudices of my own. Indeed, I wouldn't have handled the material as Janoda did, preferring to hew a closer line to the original saga voice. But Janoda won me over. While writing with a markedly modern sensibility and retaining the modern novelistic conventions, many of which stray far afield from the old saga techniques, Janoda brilliantly managed to evoke the older saga form.

Here is the story of Arnkel Thorolfsson's feud with the famed Snorri Thorgrimsson, also known in the sagas as Snorri the Priest, a sly Icelandic chieftain who appears in so many of the great sagas (Njal's Saga, Laxdaela Saga). This particular tale, from Eyrbyggja Saga, is only one of several interwoven plots found there. But Janoda has astutely teased it out and put flesh on the bare saga bones, creating a rich and compelling modern novel of real human beings contending with one another in a harsh and unforgiving land. In the process he has recreated that world in all the rich detail and grim coloration that is only limned in the traditional sagas.

The beauty of what he's done is seen within the first few pages as we enter the mind and heart of Ulfar Freedman, the freed slave of a local farmer who ekes out his livelihood on a holding adjacent to Arnkel Thorolfsson's land and to the land held by Arnkel's brutal and vindictive father, Thorolf Lamefoot. In the sagas we're often given things from the point of view of the great men, the chiefs (called godhis) and their kinsmen and retainers. But Janoda's book, seen initially through the eyes of Ulfar Freedman, gives us these great ones as they may really have been, overbearing, harsh and heedless of the lesser folk around them.

Arnkel godhi has his chieftainship as the result of a deal in which his father, Thorolf, sold Ulfar land as part of a broader arrangement to buy Arnkel his position (chieftainships could be bought and sold in old Iceland). But Arnkel, who is not only proud and fierce but a good deal cleverer than his father, sees that this came at a very great cost, the break-up and diminution of Thorolf's land holdings, thus impairing Arnkel's future inheritance. Arnkel is not prepared to pay such a price, even for the chieftainship, and wants his full inheritance back.

In fact, Arnkel's father actually gained his formerly vast landholdings by killing Arnkel's grandfather in a duel, after brutalizing and abandoning Arnkel's mother, the old man's proud and arrogant daughter Gudrid, who, for her part, also desperately wants her father's lands back and wishes only ill on Thorolf, her former husband and tormentor. Thus the hapless and gentle Ulfar finds himself an unwitting pawn in a struggle that pits Arnkel against his father, and both of them against Ulfar's own former master, Thorbrand and his six sons. Though neighbors of Arnkel godhi, the Thorbrandssons have aligned themselves with the famous Snorri of Helgafell, in hopes of counterbalancing Arnkel's growing strength in their district. But old Thorbrand, Ulfar's former master, also has designs on Ulfar's farm since, under Icelandic law, it reverts to him if Ulfar dies without an heir. But Ulfar has found himself a wife and has thus inadvertently set in motion the wheels that will finally grind him into dust between these harsh men.

The story unfolds with much greater focus and depth than is found in the original sagas and this is part of its genius. Janoda has found what may very well be the true story of human struggle, in its endless complexity, that lies beneath what is merely a brief sub-plot in the original Eyrbyggja Saga. There the story is tersely told and it's not always clear who has done what to whom. Or why. But Janoda has fleshed out the tale with real people including Auln, Ulfar's betrayed wife, and Halla, the arrogant daughter of Arnkel who has inherited the domineering personality of her grandmother Gudrid but who can't help desiring Thorbrand's youngest son, Illugi, despite this. The complex game plays itself out as these people struggle and strive for primacy over one another, destroying lives and hope for those around them in the process.

The original sagas are wonderfully rich in the fascinating and moving stories they have to tell and it's Janoda's great strength that he has found that rich vein of human greed, folly and striving which lies buried deep within the best of them. Here he has dug out the ore and refined it to purest narrative gold. If you like sagas and the novels that derive from them, this is one of the best. Much as I hate to admit, I even liked it better than mine! rockirreg@aol.com

From Logberg-Heimskringla, international English language Icelandic newspaper

No Betrayal in Retelling of Old Saga  

by Perry Grosshans

Like one of the gothar, Jeff Janoda uses wisdom and craftiness to draw readers into the bloody feuds and intrigue of medieval Iceland.

Janoda’s new novel, Saga, deals with the feud between Snorri and Arnkel, two gothar (chieftain-priests of early Iceland) who use their influence, charisma, and cunning to sway their Thingmen (followers), and sometimes other gothar, each trying to conquer the other. At the heart of their political struggle is the struggle of restraint; the decision to resolve disputes through wealth rather than blood, and still retain honour.

Arnkel gothi tricks Ulfar Freedman into giving his lands to him and becoming his Thingman, lands which technically belong to Thorbrand, a Thingman of Snorri gothi. Thorolf Lamefoot, father of Arnkel, feeling dishonoured by his son, trades away his valuable lands to Snorri gothi to spite Arnkel, and thus the dispute quickly becomes a feud between the two gothar. When the democratic decision of the annual Thorsnes Thing doesn’t solve the problems, the feud becomes a bloody one.

Janoda writes Saga like a true Norse story, filling it with a multitude of characters. Sometimes there are so many, with such similar names, that one often needs to reread the glossary of characters in the beginning, which proves an invaluable asset. But all of the characters, be they gothar, Thingmen or women, struggle with Saga’s central theme of restraint. The novel emerges as a story with a great depth of character emotion.

Like the old sagas, there is a wealth of historical data, and Janoda’s knowledge about the life of the medieval Norse culture is sound. But Janoda doesn’t bog the reader down with useless trivia. The details of daily life and major events such as the Thorsnes Thing enrich the story.

Saga is actually based on Eyrbygga Saga (Saga of the people of Eyri), which is said to be one of the finest of the family sagas of Iceland., written down around the 13th century. Janoda explores a portion of this medieval saga (specifically chapters 30-38) and breathes into it a fiery and emotional life in its retelling.

Janoda remains fairly true to the historical events in the original Eyrbygga Saga, although he himself admits he has taken certain literary liberties to facilitate the storyline, particularly when it comes to character insights, emotions, and internal personal struggles. Those liberties are what make Saga stand out.

Those familiar with Eyrbygga Saga will notice that some of the dialogue in Janoda’s saga is very close to the original, such as when Snorri gothi presents Thorleif, the eldest son of Thorbrand, with a long-handled axe as a gesture that he is finally ready to deal with Arnkel gothi (cf. Eyrbygga Saga, chapter 37). In this way, Janoda does not just base his story on the saga, but truly embraces it. It gives Saga  real weight and meaning.

Saga is definitely worth reading, both for those interested in the events of Eyrbygga Saga, and for those who just want a well-written story.

In their familiar Penguin Classics bindings, Icelandic sagas look very like modern novels, but the similarity is deceptive. Sagas restrict themselves to what is said and done, not what is thought. Their authors accept a much higher level of enigma than a modern audience will tolerate. Who really did kill Vestein, in The Saga of Gisli? Critics still cannot decide. In Laxdaela, did Gudrun send out her husband Bolli to kill her lover Kjartan, or was she hoping the fight would go the other way and leave her a widow and unattached? Bolli suspects the latter, but she never says.

            Another of the great family sagas is Eyrbyggja Saga, and much illuminated in recent years by the investigations of Jesse Byock, with his demonstration that the underlying struggle in it, between the rival chieftains Arnkel and Snorri, is first over the valuable hay-meadows belonging to Ulfar the freed slave, and second over a stand of timber signed over to Snorri by Arnkel’s stupid angry ex-Viking father Thorolf Lamefoot, who turns into a vengeful draugr, or walking corpse. The saga has Arnkel as the good-hearted hero, Snorri as the crafty politician. But when Ulfar is killed, having previously signed over his rights to Arnkel, Arnkel has the killer put to death with suspicious speed: before he could talk, maybe?

            Byock did no more than indicate a possibility. Jeff Janoda has taken up the idea and run with it. In his version two crafty politicians scheme against each other, both playing a long game in full awareness of the quirks of Icelandic law, and the way in which law may at any moment be overturned by sudden violence. And there are other peculiarities. The farmsteads along the Alptafjord seem strangely short of heirs. Is there some reason for that? Those deaths ascribed to the walking corpse of Thorolf Lamefoot: any witnesses? Since Saga is in a way a “whodunit” it would not be right to give any answers. Suffice it to say that Janoda has written a novel into a gap, and in the process created something the saga only hints at: a community with strict geographical bounds, finite ecological limits, and a class-structure which permits social mobility, but never easily or safely. His book is a model of how to turn a saga into a novel, with the quite different expectations and satisfactions of the latter, but without any hint of parody or disrespect towards the former.

TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT    Dec. 2 /2005
   A culture’s stories were its first methods of preserving history. Today they provide a glimpse into the collective consciousness of its ancient people and if one looks closely, the basis of the modern society they helped to shape.
   Canadian author Jeff Janoda has captured that spirit in his first novel, Saga. To say this novel is well researched is an understatement — Janoda spent nearly a decade researching the medieval period of Northern Europe.
   His fascination with this period stems from an interest in the highly developed culture and system of law, as well as the people’s strong connection with both the land and the sea. This dedication to the period provided him with a strong base for his story.
   A particular influence on Janoda were the Icelandic sagas — some of the best surviving documents of the medieval period in northern Europe. Based on even older oral stories, their vivid descriptions of the people, their relationships and their systems of law and order create a three dimensional picture that is priceless.
   Saga is based on a 13th-century story called “Saga of the People of Eyri.” Like other sagas of this period, it is rich in both homely and fantastical elements, giving readers a unique look at both the lives and pagan beliefs of Iceland’s early settlers.
   One of the most startling elements to the casual reader is the early Icelandic legal assembly, or the “Thing,” which remains in place as the “Althing” in Iceland today. This quasi-democratic system of laws is in direct contrast with the more famous violent ways of the Icelander’s kin, the Vikings.
   The novel also follows another formula of the saga as the external experiences and conflicts of the characters overshadow any internal character development. There is no true protagonist in this story. Each of the characters is thinly but boldly drawn, complete with character flaws that make it difficult for the reader to embrace any of them. Although Janoda creates strong characters, he makes no judgments of them. He leaves that to the reader.
   For example, Ulfar, one of the first characters introduced, is a freed slave. He is portrayed as a devoted family man and a talented farmer, but he is also indecisive and weak in a society that values strength. This character flaw acts as a catalyst for a series of ugly events.
   So, it seems as if Ulfar should be the hero of the story. That is sadly not the case. In fact, the story is more about the power struggle between his old master Thorbrand’s family, their leader Snorri gothi, and Ulfar’s chosen leader, Arnkel gothi.
   None of these men (or their women) are heroes. They are all seriously flawed, whether by greed, lust, or hatred. It is therefore impossible to truly identify with any of them.
   But that seems to be the point. We are not supposed to dwell on who these characters are and what motivates them. They are more like archetypes instead of people, though Janoda succeeds in making them just human enough that we are drawn into the story.
   But readers will be mesmerized by the events of the story and the melding of myth with the everyday life. In this world, the dead walk the earth wreaking havoc and settling scores, men still make live sacrifices, and the elves cavort in the corner of one’s eye.
   Saga illustrates what a rich and varied culture emerged from the barren waste of land the first people of Iceland fought to conquer. The author shows the dichotomy between the old ways of feudal power — settling disputes with the sword and the emerging system of laws and justice that more closely resemble our own.
   In Saga, Janoda creates a story that appeals to the modern reader but still resonates with the song of the sagas of old. For that alone, it is worth the read.

By KIMBERLEY BLEVINS for the Leader-Post

©2005 Jeff Janoda