This is part of a review series in which I take a look at some of the other books that were picked up by Harper Voyager at the same time as mine. For all the usual disclaimers, refer back to the first episode in the series :-)
‘No person of Helvik may kill another person of Helvik. Any person who breaks this rule is no longer a person of Helvik.’
The idea of a society that has only a single law is a fascinating one. It is presented in the book as the town leader's way of ending the blood feuds that have been raging among his people for generations – you know, the sort of feuds where a man kills your brother so you kill his cousin and after a while there are bodies all over the place and no-one actually knows how the damn thing started. As far as it goes, the Rule of the title ends that: anyone who has committed murder can be killed with impunity and that should be the end of the matter – an eye for an eye.
In reality, of course, it's very far from sufficient. Because as you may have noticed, the Rule only covers murder. You can do literally anything else to your fellow townsmen, and they have no recourse to any kind of justice except that which they mete out themselves. Not only that, but if you kill someone for what might be considered acceptable reasons – self-defence against grievous bodily harm, say, or by accident – the Rule makes no allowance for that.
An unscrupulous man might very well use this setup to goad a rival into killing, then claim the right to take his life in return.
Alongside this disaster waiting to happen within its walls, the Viking-esque town of Helvik has other problems to contend with outside them: a marauding warband has arrived to besiege the town, demanding plunder and threatening destruction. It's how these two plotlines intersect, with devastating effect, that's the subject of the novel – and Colman delivers a non-stop piece of visceral, action-driven writing in which allegiances change, blood is spilt and no-one is safe.
Appropriately for such subject matter, the author excels at writing realistic and often brutal fight scenes. He obviously knows what he's talking about – how people survive in combat, and how they die – and as a result, you really feel the snap of breaking bones and feel the spray of blood. If you like to read books that don't shy away from the realities of what it means to wield a weapon, you'll appreciate this aspect of The Rule.
Yet it's not all guts and gore. Colman also succeeds in capturing some very affecting emotional scenes, particularly in the relationships between our protagonist Gunnarr and his wife and mother. The latter, Frejya, was my very favourite character of the book, a true fighting spirit who refused to be cowed by anything. She and Kelda, Gunnarr's wife, gave the narrative much of its heart and lent real weight to the consequences of some of the characters' decisions. Perhaps surprisingly, I also enjoyed the character of Olaf, the besieging warlord: a character who I certainly wouldn't describe as sympathetic, but who proved to be pleasingly nuanced – in general, a man more worthy of respect than the traitor lurking within Helvik.
Overall, The Rule was a quick, tense and satisfying read that I would recommend to fans of Bernard Cornwell, or anyone who enjoys plenty of well-described action and characters who are easy to root for.
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