Eelyn is a warrior. Her father and best friend are warriors. Her mother and brother, before they were slain, were warriors. It’s in her blood and all around her, for everyone physically able to fight is bound to do so by tradition and faith. After all, their god Sigr has declared himself in perpetual war against Thora, goddess of the Riki. The enemy.
Every five years they meet in battle, and then depart to lick their wounds and build their strength for the next season of slaughter. This is a brutally efficient system, and one that all warriors Aska and Riki agree upon. Except that maybe Fiske doesn’t agree. And maybe Eelyn, who is Aska but ends up in Fiske’s Riki village, can see his point. Especially when larger threats to both Riki and Aska arise.
Fortunately, Sky in the Deep by Adrienne Young isn’t a tale of star-crossed lovers. This is a story about two angry, resentful people who start a relationship based on grudging respect for each other’s skill at violence. I have to say, I wish more romances started off this way. It’s quite refreshing. In a harsh landscape where violence is not only culturally mandated but also requisite for basic survival, it actually is a solid foundation for two people to share.
The writing is perfectly suited to the characters, and vice versa. Young’s terse, almost abrupt style is actually not much like actual Viking (saga) literature, which was a bit more matter-of-fact and humorous (not to mention legalistic), but it does suit the ahistorical “Viking” vibe that Young is going for. She doesn’t care about locating the story in any particular time or place, and gives us just enough context to understand that it’s a vaguely medieval Scandinavia.
This isn’t meant to be a criticism. Young clearly hasn’t set out to tell an historical novel, and I genuinely like the ahistorical take, which feels at once relatable and mythic. As someone whose ancestors were probably more toward the peasant side of the warrior-farmer spectrum, and who has seen my share of rusty farming implements in Scandinavian museums, I am perfectly happy to throw off reality to imagine a mist-shrouded battlefield full of glory. And gore.
The book is significantly gory, though not in a gratuitous way. More in a well-that’s-what-happens-when-you-spend-your-whole-life-focused-on-chopping-other-people-up way. Anything less would be a betrayal of not only the characters, but of the themes of sacrifice and change. Life is really cheap in Eelyn’s world, but also really precious. You can’t fight that hard if you don’t value your own life and the lives of your fellow villagers. But you also can’t kill without compunction if you value all lives. That moral tension drives the book and drives it hard, never letting up. The action is constant, and the emotional stakes only ever get higher, making this an incredibly compelling read.
Young missed an opportunity to draw larger conclusions by making the larger antagonists supernatural, or at least allowing her characters to believe as much. It makes the ending a little bit ironic, and perhaps that was intentional: even when the definition of “us” expands and the “them” changes, it’s still “us vs. them.” It’s a pessimistic undertone for an otherwise hopeful ending. I don’t dislike it, but I wonder if it could have been telegraphed better, if it was indeed the author’s intended meaning.
Ironies of morality aside, Sky in the Deep took me two sittings to finish (it would have been one, but my Viking heritage is diluted and my enemy, sleep, defeated me pretty easily). I didn’t expect it to be so engrossing, but sometimes the hype is hype for a reason. This is well worth your time.