Historical fiction isn’t a genre that you often see in comics. If you do, it tends to be versions of history with a twist on them, where history has diverged at some point in some unusual way, or it has some kind of fantastical element like magic or the supernatural added into the mix. Sons of Ashgard: Ill Met in Elmgard doesn’t do either of those things to make its Norse inspired story. Instead it makes the rather bold and cute move of making all of the characters small furry animals.
The story centres on Erick Redfur, a red squirrel who begins the tale on a ship travelling to a distant land named Elmgard. Erick has been forced to leave his lifelong home, and everyone he knows, after being accused of murder. Rather than being sentenced to death, Erick is banished from the land he once called home, and branded with the name Bloodhand. Hoping that he can escape his past in Elmgard, Erick is seeking out a second chance at life.
READ MORE: The Dead Hour (Season One) – TV Review
Erick spends some time settling into the small coastal village of Old Shore, visiting the local tavern where he meets Gorm, a huge guy who makes coin by arm-wrestling the men of the village. That night, the village comes under attack by Skraelings, a clan of vicious chipmunk warriors. As the village deals with their wounded and dead after the attack, Erick is brought before the Jarl, who wants Erick to join up with a small scouting team tasked with going after the Skraelings, finding where they live, and striking back if possible. Whilst Erick refuses, the Jarl uses the secret of Erick’s crime to force him to cooperate. Now Erick and a group of warriors and trackers have to head out into the wilderness, and danger.
At its heart Sons of Ashgard: Ill Met in Elmgard is an action adventure story in the same vein as The 13th Warrior or Beowulf. If the book had humans rather than animals it would be an intense story, one where a small band of fighters are facing off against dangerous odds, going up against vicious killers who can’t be reasoned with, having to kill just to stay alive. And there are times where the book does feel a bit like that, but as soon as the characters are switched out for animals it suddenly becomes an all ages story. The violence, which does include death, loses its edge, and it feels like you’re reading a mature children’s story rather than a violent historical epic. And ultimately, that choice also makes the book stand out.
READ MORE: Blue Thunder – Throwback 40
I’ve read a lot of comics, and a lot of books try to go violent, perhaps hoping that the ultra-violence, the blood and guts and swearing, will end up with the book standing out amongst its competitors. And yes, this does make very violent books immediately different from your standard superhero comics like Superman and Batman, but after a while they all tend to bleed into each other, and it becomes hard to recall any of them. In comparison, I’m going to remember Sons of Ashgard: Ill Met in Elmgard precisely because it didn’t go with a ‘realistic’ approach. I’m going to remember the squirrel warriors, the chipmunk people attacking a village, and the more cutesy aesthetic of the book.
While the book goes for a more all ages approach visually, it doesn’t feel the need to dumb things down for the readers. The characters are flawed, they have complex emotions and motivations, and they have some pretty adult conversations. The story and script could be given to human characters with relatively little change and it would still work well. And that is another thing that the book has working in its favour. It feels like anyone can pick it up and enjoy it without feeling left behind, or like they’re too smart for it; which is a very tough thing to pull off.
READ MORE: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 – Film Review
I’ve spoken a bit about the fact that the book stands out because of the characters being animals, and I have to take some time to sing the praises of Matt Wendt, the artist on the book. Every single page looks absolutely fantastic, from the backgrounds, to the locations, to each and every character having their own unique look, a lot of effort seems to have gone into making the book stand out from a visual point. Each of the main characters who make up Erick’s team, Gorm the large guy who uses his fists, Henrik the cocky swordsman, Rolf the mysterious tracker and bowman, Bruna the fierce shield maiden, and Soren the city guard tasked with keeping them on mission all have their own personalities that come through in the designs. You can tell each of them apart in a second, thanks to their unique looks and styles, and it helps in keeping track in the large fight scenes and the chaos that comes later in the book.
I can see some readers passing over Sons of Ashgard: Ill Met in Elmgard, thinking that it might be a children’s book, thanks to the bright colours and animal characters. But whilst it will be a fun book for younger readers that doesn’t mean that adults should miss out on it too. Whether you’re reading it with your kid, or if you’re not even a parent, there are a lot of fun, entertaining moments to be found in this book and it’s worth giving a try if you’re able.
Sons of Ashgard: Ill Met in Elmgard is out now from Dark Horse.