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YALSA GGNT Top Ten Manga: Vinland Saga Volume 1

Thorfinn is a teenage boy and a member of a mercenary crew of Vikings that raid towns in France and England and return to their home base in Denmark. But Thorfinn isn’t interested in battle or treasure. As a boy he dreamed of sailing on a long ship and becoming a Viking warrior. Now he has only one goal in mind: To avenge the death of his father ten years previously at the hand of the mercenary leader Askeladd.

YALSA GGNT Top Ten Manga: Vinland Saga Volume 1
By Makoto Yukimura
Older Teen
Kodansha, October 2013. ISBN: 978-1612624204
470 pgs., $19.99 USD

At the 2014 American Library Association Midwinter convention YALSA, the Young Adult Library Services Association, announced their Great Graphic Novels for Teens list for 2014. Of the 78 titles listed, 10 of them were manga. Vinland Saga is historical fiction about a Viking boy, Thorfinn, who is trying to avenge the death of his father in a duel with the mercenary leader Askeladd.

Vinland Saga begins with Thorfinn as a teenager and shows the cunning of the mercenary leader Askeladd and the determination and ferocity of Thorfinn as they join a battle between Frank lords. Thorfinn wins the right to challenge Askeladd, and their duel takes place when they return to their home base, land controlled by Askeladd’s uncle in Denmark. Thorfinn loses, and the story flashes back ten years, to Thorfinn’s home in Iceland with his father Thors, his mother, his sister and his family friend Leif Erikson. A company of warriors, the Jomsvikings, come to their village to reclaim Thors to join a war against England after a sneak attack on a Dane village there. Thors reluctantly agrees and takes five young men with him. Thorfinn stows away and Thors is forced to take him with him. The leader of the Joms sets up a trap for Thors, using Askeladd and his men, and they are ambushed. Thorfinn is taken hostage, and Thors sacrifices himself for his son.

Vinland Saga is a series that takes the historical part of historical fiction seriously. Several of the characters in the series are based on historical figures. The most obvious is Leif Erikson, the famed Norse explorer who discovered Iceland, Greenland, and supposedly Vinland: North America. He plays a prominent role in the flashback chapters. He and Thors are friends, and he stays with Thors while he is preparing for his trip back to Finland to trade for goods. Thorfinn also has historical ties to an early Viking explorer of the same name. Askeladd shares the name of a Norwegian folk character known for his cunning.

It’s not just the characters. Yukimura took great care to research Viking culture, weapons, and clothing to create a world that is very believable. From the struggles to eke out a living in Iceland to the revelry of raiders returning home with their loot, it’s easy to accept the Norse way of life that she portrays. Yukimura doesn’t pull any punches, especially in the battle sequences. Soldiers are pierced with arrows from every direction. Eyeballs pop out when arrows are removed, and heads are severed clean off. The pages can run black from all the blood. So while this is a series with a lot of historical significance, it is not for those with weak constitutions.

But if you can get past the violent battles, then a fascinating work filled with strong characters, intense emotions, and compelling drama awaits. Thorfinn is portrayed as a single-minded boy intent on avenging his father, but in the flashback, he is less sympathetic: He is shown to be his own worst enemy, and much of what happens to his father is because of his actions. Askeladd starts out seeming like a complete jerk to Thorfinn, as he mocks him, causing him to lose his temper and therefore the duel. But in the flashback, he shown to respect Thors as both a warrior and a man, which may explain why he tolerates Thorfinn on his crew, even with his vendetta.

This first volume sets up the story, but it is still an intense read. It establishes where Thorfinn is now and then shows why he has such an intense hatred for Askeladd. The flashback takes up the majority of the volume, showing Thorfinn’s life before Askeladd. Life on Iceland isn’t easy, between the elements and the some of the other leaders. The biggest struggle seems to be for Thors, as he tries to teach his children, Yvla and Thorfinn, to live a life free and without battle in a culture that permits slavery and glorifies war. It is this dichotomy that creates some of the most intense moments in volume, as well as some of its lighter moments, such as Yvla bemoaning her father’s poor bartering skills when he trades away precious sheep for the right to bury a dead slave.

Kodansha Comics presents Vinland Saga as a 2-in-1 omnibus in a a premium hardback format. It features glossy color pages at the beginning, translator notes at the end explaining several of the Norse references, and a bonus story about Japan at the end of the Edo period. While it has a higher price point, this is a series that is worth every penny. The story is truly a page turner. It’s easy to get pulled into Thorfinn’s story and not want to leave anytime soon. While the historical elements makes this an appealing series for parents and teachers, it’s the strong characters and intense story that will keep teens reading.

Review copy provided by publisher.

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Lori Henderson About Lori Henderson

Lori Henderson is a mother of two teenage daughters and an avid reader. She blogs about manga at her personal blog Manga Xanadu as well as contributing and editing for Manga Village. She blogs about all things fandom (mainly Doctor Who) at her other personal blog Fangirl Xanadu. She's been at it so for over 5 years now and counting!

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