The Hammer and the Cross by Harry Harrison. Review by Sabrina Spiher

Book Cover

This is a book for men.

I'm not much of a feminist critic, and I'm not going to accuse Harry Harrison of misogyny. In fact, I might be betraying myself as a gender essentialist. But whatever. This is a book for men.

I don't say this just because of the book's preoccupation with war, though. Set in the late 800s, The Hammer and the Cross posits an alternate history in which an army of spiritual Vikings, close followers of the Norse religion of the Way, led by a freed English slave and joined by other English freedmen, carve out a kingdom in opposition to the rest of England and the Catholic Church. Their jarl, the former English thrall Shef, must face the challenge not only of his enraged stepbrother and stepfather, allied with a corrupt and greedy Church, but of the evil and sadistic Viking leader Ivar the Boneless, seeking vengeance for Shef's apprehension of half of Ivar's army (and Shef's stepfather's daughter, Godive, who he also stole from the affections his stepbrother—yes, her half-brother—Alfgar). It's a complicated plot, involving not only earthly politics but otherworldly intervention as Shef receives messages from an unknown Norse god, but naturally, it's a blood-soaked plot, 'cause I mean, hey, it's a book about Vikings, and the nasty, brutish, short lives of Englishmen in the dark ages. Violence is par for the course, though the sadism of Ivar the Boneless is particularly intense; not just what's explicitly portrayed as he tortures his captives, but what you're almost begged to concoct yourself as you're told repeatedly by the author that Ivar can only be sexually aroused under brutal conditions and that his brothers leave him "offerings" of bound women occasionally to slake his brutality, whose remains they quietly remove from Ivar's tent in the morning.

Try not to think about it. I dare you.

No, I say this is a book for men not just because its focus is a long military campaign across many terrains and against many foes—though, I mean, that is part of it. This is a book for men because there's barely a woman in it. Which is strange, because women come up a lot. Godive is portrayed as a pivotal chess piece by the gods in Shef's visions, and in fact she is manhandled back and forth as an object of spite and bait among three men on several occasions. Despite this, no more than a dozen paragraphs in a 470-page book are from her perspective, and only a few more even portray her as a secondary focus of action. We're told that she's important—we're told, in fact, that other women are important. Shef's mother is vital to the question of Shef's possibly unearthly origin; by the final battle of the book, women are pivotally filling the ranks of Shef's depleted army. But despite what we're told by the author about how important women are, the narrative itself tells us the exact opposite in its omission of women as characters not only of substance, but even of presence. It's impossible to believe in the importance of a person or persons who remain almost completely absent over the course of 500 pages.

If the book is a boys' club despite its claims, interestingly, it's an American boys' club—even if America won't be around for another 600 years or so. I say this because Shef is not a manly warrior of lineage. Rather, he's a scrappy former slave who's pulled himself up from nothing with tenacity... and engineering! The machines he builds, reminiscent of the Romans' long-forgotten engines of war, catapults and crossbows, allow him to build a victorious army... out of other former slaves! The ones he keeps freeing and adding to his core army of Vikings, who all of course look askance at the "puny" (an adjective frequently used in their description by Harrison) freedmen who operate the war machines, and who all of course get proven wrong when the puny ex-slaves and their catapults win the day. And it's not just this Horatio Alger-type hero, who wins more often with cunning and math than he does with warrior strength, that turns this book into an odd homage to the myth of America. When it comes time to imagine the kingdom that a freed English slave leading Vikings of faith would build, there's not too much "alternate" about the history, except for where the kingdom's situated. In Shef's kingdom, men are free to work the land and earn what they can, worship as they please whatever god they please, and women, too, enjoy these benefits and freedoms. Education and learning are emphasized as keys to victory, particularly hard sciences. Sound familiar? Shef builds America in England in 865. The biggest fantasy involved is the one about America actually being free and learned.

Despite these big complaints, though, I have to say that I enjoyed reading The Hammer and the Cross. It was engaging and interesting—I did want to see what would happen to Shef and his Wayfolk and his freedmen. I wanted to see Ivar and Alfgar brought to justice, and the corrupt Church leaders as well (I was only partially satisfied by the way this justice was brought). The book seemed thoroughly researched, its world realized in intricate and compelling detail, and the writing itself was clear and brisk.

So ultimately, The Hammer and the Cross was engaging but irritating, at least for me as a woman reader. Check it out for the awesome Vikings, but don't expect its narrative to mirror its stated intentions, any kind of revolutionary Viking kingdom, or any women.

Sabrina Spiher is a recent graduate of the University of Michigan's MFA program in Creative Writing. She posts frequent reviews, blogs, and discussion topics on her website,