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Well, if you really want to know how it was I came to be chained to an oak tree, half-way up in the middle of nowhere, with wolves trying to eat me out of it, I'll tell you. Of course, it's not nearly as interesting as what happened afterwards, but you can piece that together yourself if you go down to any of the taverns around the Praetorian barracks and listen to what the soldiers sing. If you can understand German, of course. They sing things like:

High the Allfather
Hung in the hornbeam;
Nine days and no drinking,
Nine nights and no nurture...


Alfege the Earl, Odin-born,
Great in guile, wise in war...

I often go down there and listen. It never crosses their minds that it was only me all the time...Interested yet...?

You should be. That's the first couple of paragraphs from Votan, a historical novel by John James about how the crafty Greek merchant Photinus tries to buy the Baltic amber mines from dimwit natives who aren't as dim as he thinks, and ends up founding a mythological pantheon instead. As one does...

It's a tongue-in-cheek, witty first-person narrative, with little side-jokes that work even better if you know anything at all about Graeco-Roman history and/or Norse mythology. And sometimes it's surprisingly harsh, when that likeable (though not very trustworthy) chap Photinus gives a jolting reminder that his voice comes from the late first century, when life is cheaper than you think.

First published by Cassell in 1966, and found by me in Lisburn library around 1969 (officially I was too young for books from the Adult Library, but I was very persuasive when it came to "Viking stuff,") Votan was issued as a Tandem paperback in 1971 (owned it, loaned it, never got it back - I wasn't the only one in my form who was keen on Viking stuff, and Parky was bigger than me.) In 1987 Bantam brought out a unified-binding paperback "set" of this and James's two other historicals, Not for all the Gold in Ireland and Men Went To Cattraeth, which are the versions I now own. They went out of print in about 1990, and after that nothing for two decades.

Until now. Well, now-and-a-bit...

In Not for all the Gold in Ireland, Photinus tries to recover his family's Deed of Monopoly to the Wicklow goldmines, and ends up far too close to an Irishman called Setanta with a dislike for cattle-rustling... I started reading the book last night, in connection with another project entirely, and noticed it and Votan were getting a bit mangy. (Men Went To Cattraeth is almost mint; no Photinus, different style, different tone, unfamiliar mythology, not for me.) I started wondering if they were easy to replace, and idly looked up the titles earlier today.

That's when I discovered Neil Gaiman is bringing Votan back into print as Volume 2 of the Neil Gaiman Presents series from Dark Horse. (Thanks, Neil! Now, what about The Long Ships?))

Comixology give a publication date of 8 July 2009, while claims 1 August, 2009; however, the absence of any actual book to buy, and the beginning-of-this-month post on Babylon Wales suggests that it'll be available sometime early this year instead. Second-hand (hardback) copies can be found in various places for various prices, from as low as $20.00 to as high as $350.00(!) but with the new edition listed at $13.00, nothing more need be said.

Here's Jo Walton's review, from the Tor Books website. My own review would be kinder, because I don't object to the humour as much as she does, but she hits all the main points.

When it comes out, get it and read it; I think you'll like it. I certainly do, and have done, for more than forty years...

April 2017



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