The historical manga is one genre that is traditionally not well represented in English translation. Sure, there’s plenty of manga set in the past (or in fictional worlds that resemble it) but generally they will be spruced up with elements of the supernatural and fantasy. Straight historical fiction however is not something English-speaking manga readers see a lot of, but it’s not because it’s not being produced in Japan. Although there’s an awful lot of manga set in Japan’s own past, the Japanese are also fascinated by world history and in particular that of Europe. Which brings us to Vinland Saga, the hugely successful historical epic from Planetes creator Makoto Yukimura, which is now making its way to English readers courtesy of Kodansha Comics USA. The series has won considerable acclaim in both in its original country and in other foreign editions, picking up several high-profile awards along the way. It’s fair to say then that Vinland Saga arrives with some pretty high expectations that it’s going to be something pretty special – and luckily, it does not disappoint.
Vinland Saga is set among the world of the Vikings, and follows a young lad named Thorfinn. At the start of the first book Thorfinn (aged sixteen) travels with a particularly bloodthirsty Viking crew headed by the fearsome Askeladd. We soon learn however that all is not as it seems, and that though he fights alongside them, he only does so to hopefully one day slay Askeladd to get vengeance for his father. The bulk of the volume is made up of an extended flashback recounting what befell Thorfinn’s father Thors (like the Thunder guy but with an ‘s’ on the end). Thors was a once mighty Viking warrior who lost his taste for battle and took refuge in Iceland until his past inevitably caught up with him. Thors is a wonderful character – brave, stoic, and hard as nails. Knowing what we know gives the whole sorry tale a sense of foreboding and crushing inevitability and it’s hard not to get sucked in. He’s just one among a well drawn cast of characters, both likeable and loathsome. Unfortunately at this early stage, Thorfinn himself is a bit of an empty vessel, all moody stares and teen angst, and doesn’t make much of a lasting impression. There’s no reason not to expect this to change, though, as we spend more time with him and dig deeper into his story.
The historical setting is wonderfully presented and clearly immaculately researched. Not only does the Viking setting make Vinland Saga stand out, but it creates a truly absorbing sense of time and place The fantastic and intricate artwork goes a long way to achieving this, but it’s the strong writing that really makes this saga sing. You’ll actually learn things about Norse culture along the way too, and, like all the best historical fiction, it makes you want to learn even more.
If the historical setting makes you worried it might be overly dry – don’t be. There’s plenty of levity and goofy moments among the authentic-seeming elements. The action feels suitably tough and gritty, much like you’d find in any historical epic. However, there is also some more typically manga-style exaggeration in the action, with Thors particularly being practically super-human. The graphic novel is lavishly presented with Kodansha giving us a handsome hardback you’ll be pleased to own. The English edition contains two of the original Japanese volumes, complete with bonus material – so it’s great value to boot.
If you’ve had your fill of manga set in Japanese high-schools or futuristic settings, Vinland Saga could be just what the doctor ordered. A compelling story in a fascinating setting, this is one saga you don’t want to miss.