There’s a scene early on in this volume where Thorfinn recounts to the family he left behind what he’s been up to for the past sixteen years. Mangaka Makoto Yukimura doesn’t have his protagonist go into specifics, only showing Thorfinn calmly narrating, the shocked looks of those around him, montages of panels from chapters past, and captions which convey the emotional weight of the events in question. It ends with the captions noting that the man’s story has left all who heard it speechless. Rather than coming off as self-congratulatory, it’s a pretty effective encapsulation of how good the series has been up until now. Vol. 8 continues that tradition even as it takes a swerve regarding where I was expecting “Vinland Saga” to go next.
After Thorfinn stated his desire to head off to Vinland and establish a land where all who lived there could be free, I thought we’d finally make it to the titular place after all this time. As it turns out, getting there is going to require a lot more work than having Thorfinn and his brother-in-arms Einar simply get in a boat, sail across the ocean, and set up shop there. No, they’re going to need enough money to secure the supplies they and a hundred men will need to survive for at least a year when they make it to Vinland. The problem is that there’s only one man in Thorfinn’s neighborhood who has enough wealth to fund such a proposition: Halfdan.
Readers with long memories will recall that he’s the landowner whom Thorfinn’s father Thors bargained with for the fate of a runaway slave way back in the first volume. The intervening years haven’t lightened his mood any. In fact, his constantly dour expression makes one wonder if he derives any joy from the things he actually likes doing. While Thorfinn, Einar, and Leif Erickson are aware of all this going in, they happen to arrive at a fortuitous time: Halfdan’s son Sigurd is getting married. To Leif’s sister-in-law, Gudrid, no less.
There are complications to this arrangement. The biggest being that Gudrid is a huge tomboy who has wanted to go on one of Leif’s expeditions ever since he first told her about them. Had she been born a man, she could’ve easily become a first-class sailor. As a woman, Gudrid has to settle for being married off to the foolish and short-tempered Sigurd. She’s not very happy about it and most of the first half of this volume is seeing how Gudrid struggles against her current lot in ways that are comedic, tragic, and (ultimately) triumphant.
Gudrid is a lively presence and that helps to energize her arc. Most of the comedy is front-loaded in her appearance as she meets Thorfinn and co. in a way that Solid Snake would definitely approve of. Yet while Gudrid is a thoroughly likeable character with struggles that are easily understood, there’s a certain predictability to her arc. By that I mean, save for a moment of violence on her wedding night, Gudrid’s characterization so far is almost identical to your average Disney Princess. She’s strong-willed, pushing against the role of women in her society, and yearns to see more of the world than she knows. Thankfully, we’re spared any equally predictable musical numbers here. Gudrid does work well within the established cast of the series and works out to be a convenient point-of-view character for this arc so I’m not unhappy about her addition to the cast. The challenge here will be to see if Yukimura can break Gudrid out of her familiar characterization.
Much in the same way he did with Thorfinn over the course of the previous volumes in this series. From a kid with curious and violent tendencies, to a vengeance-crazed teenager, to a broken young man, and then the contemplative and remorseful adult that we see in this volume now. It’s a remarkable journey which the character has undergone so far and Yukimura keeps building on it as he acknowledges the man’s progress so far.
We see that Thorfinn hasn’t completely let his skills as a warrior go to seed in encounters with Sigurd early on and a bear much later. Yet his desire to find peaceful resolutions to sticky situations at the cost of his pride is still intact, as Halfdan finds out when he asks the man to kiss his boots in exchange for the funds he needs for his expedition. So when Leif says that he’s willing to give founding a new colony in Vinland another shot because he believes that Thorfinn will be able to find common ground with the natives, you believe him. But Yukimura isn’t about to let his protagonist off of the hook for all of the killing he did during his time with Askeladd’s band. There’s some great drama here as a result of that, but it also leads to an unimaginative cliffhanger ending for this volume.
Which is too bad, not just because of “Vinland Saga’s” annual release schedule over here, but because the new journey of Thorfinn and co. has the makings of a grand adventure through the Old World. They’re off to Miklagard (A.K.A. Istanbul, A.K.A. Constantinople) to pass off Narwhal horns as Unicorn horns in order to get the funding they need for the Vinland expedition. So far we’ve seen them meet up with some of Leif’s friends, encounter a village razed by vikings, and meet up with a female hunter who has a deadly crossbow. You can’t be sure what everyone will encounter next, though it’s hard not to expect the results to be entertaining. Much as they have been throughout the series so far.