Seeking Valhalla: A Retro Science Fiction Novel
Eric G. Swedin
Borgo Press, 2013
Trade paperback, $14.99
It is the final days of World War II. The German military has expended nearly all of its resources: men, ammunition, ground weapons, aircraft. The Battle of Berlin, with its devastating losses on both sides, has begun. The end is in sight.
Major John Carter, aiding in the liberation of the Dachau death-camp, discovers among the unspeakable horrors that he and the other Allied forces discover something so unusual, so startling, that he has no clear sense of how it fits into the realities of war: a barrack, unusually well-constructed, unusually well-heated, with beds and pillows and mattresses and blankets…and a cowering group of young, attractive, well-nourished, long-haired women.
His confusion does not last long. One of them, an Irish women little more than a girl, tells Carter that she and the others, as well as scores more during the past four years, have all been kidnapped from their homes in lands with Nordic ancestries, for the sole purpose of becoming virgin sacrifices at the Temple of Odin.
At almost the same time, in a secluded chalet not far distant, SS Colonel Hans von Krohn puts the finishing touches on a plan to rescue the Third Reich from incipient disaster. He, his two faithful bodyguards, and one of the would-be sacrificial victims escape the ruins of German-occupied Bavaria and head north, first toward Norway, and finally toward the Arctic regions themselves, in search of the something that nearly everyone else believes exists only in myths and legends—Yggdrasil, the World-Tree, growing in the center of Valhalla, where Odin still rules.
Thus begins what the book cover identifies as a “Retro Science Fiction Novel” but that might with equal precision be called a “Scientific Romance” à la Edgar Rice Burroughs. To point readers toward Burroughsian echoes is not to provide spoilers, however; Swedin clearly does not intend for readers to get very far in the action-adventure, science-fantasy that is Seeking Valhalla without noticing the links. The main character, John Carter, is named in the first sentence.
That by itself does not necessarily specify an allusion, but when, only a few pages later, the major’s sergeant is identified as one “Carson Napier”; a greenhorn soldier who dies during a firefight against the SS is known only as “Clayton” (one assumes that his first name might just be “John”); and a mysterious Colonel, who almost immediately commandeers Carter and Napier to follow him on an equally mysterious trek northward, calls himself “Edgar B. Rice”—well, to claim that the names are merely coincidental stretches credibility.
Once all of Swedin’s characters are in place—Nazi and Allied, including a cameo-like reference to an American anthropologist named “Jones”—we are ready for a roller-coaster ride of an adventure that stretches from Germany to the North Pole; that mingles Swedin’s background in military history with his knowledge of myth, legend, religion, and ancient literatures into a believable whole; and that recreates the atmosphere, the landscapes, and the texture of the Nordic sagas.
Seeking Valhalla is crisply and clearly written, chapters shifting point-of-view characters freely but without any confusion. Visual imagery plays a large part in the narrative, as does sideways references to books and films; Lost Horizon (novel, 1933; film, 1937) plays a significant role in preparing us—and the characters—for what is to come. And the conclusion is handled adroitly, managing to combine a dirigible cruising over the Arctic wastes, Adam and Eve and the Fruit of the Tree of Life, Odin and the World-Ash, and Valkyries sweeping from the skies.
In all, Seeking Valhalla is exciting, interesting and informative, fun, and a creditable homage to Burroughs and his generation of fantasists.