Book Reviews, Literary

Review: THE LAST BERSERKER, by Angus Donald

THE LAST BERSERKER is, technically, a bildungsroman, which is a fancy German literary word to describe a novel where the main character starts out young and then learns things along the way. Here, said main character is learning how to become a berserker, a warrior in medieval Europe who enters into a state of bloodlust on the battlefield, heedless of personal safety. This is not what a modern person would call a stable job, but at the time it probably had a lot of glamour and travel attached to it.

Of course, like any other job, you don’t just show up on your first day at the office and start out as a berserker. You have to work your way into it, which is where the bildungsroman aspect of things come in. Our hero, oafish Bjarki Bloodhand from the island of Bago, starts out as an apprentice killing machine, and is spotted by a medieval talent scout, who rescues him from the hangman’s rope and whisks him off to a combat academy in the Black Forest.

There is perhaps a little more postmodernism in THE LAST BERSERKER than you might expect, and if you are thinking that maybe there’s a little bit of Harry Potter going on, you wouldn’t be wrong. (And maybe a little bit of Star Wars, as long as we’re being all analytical about it.) Young Bjarki is attached to the Bear Lodge, where he learns both the basics of warfare and the deep mystical lore of the berserker. This requires the apprentice warrior to manifest an animal spirit inside oneself that gets unleashed, to terrifying affect, on the battlefield.

The bildungsroman is a fairly conventional genre, and there is a fairly conventional progression to the events in THE LAST BERSERKER; if you think you’ve read this one before, you’re probably right. What makes THE LAST BERSERKER work isn’t necessarily the plot, or the characters, or the historical setting, but the description of the battle scenes. Angus Donald manages to handle both the large-scale and small-scale descriptions of battle. And fortunately, there are enough of those to keep the action going and overcome some of the rough spots in the narrative.

THE LAST BERSERKER has one too many convenient coincidences and flat characters to be truly outstanding, but it delivers on its promise of blood-soaked action.