Tom Holt, Who's Afraid of Beowulf? (St. Martin's Press, 1988; Ace, 1996)

When Hildy Frederiksen was a little girl she wanted to be a Viking. Since there aren't many 20th-century career opportunities in that direction, she became an archeologist. So it was Hildy who was sent to the longship burial mound to discover the perfectly preserved ship Naglfar and its crew of 13 Vikings -- strangely lively ones considering they'd been down there for twelve hundred years.

In Who's Afraid of Beowulf?, King Hrolf Earthstar Ketilsson, his champions, shape-changer and wizard -- with the help of Hildy and a couple of energy slurping chthonic spirits -- set out from Caithness, Scotland, to find and destroy their old nemesis, the sorcerer-king.

Who's Afraid of Beowulf? could easily have become a single joke novel as the warriors try to adjust to modern life. Indeed, there is the required fearful hesitation on encountering the minibus: "I'm not getting in that. For one thing, it's got no oars," and the crew is less than enthused about the movement restricting blue suits purchased so they'll blend in. (Though the shields and swords made them a tad conspicuous anyway.)

Instead of relying on cliched anachronisms, author Tom Holt forces us to shift our perceptions as the Vikings are not only comfortable but familiar with technology -- though they used to call it "magic." The sorcerer-king now heads a media empire, and Hrolf's wizard, Kotkel, uses his resources to create a replenishing can of lager. (OK, so modern society only wishes we still had powers like that!)

In addition to Hildy and King Hrolf, several of the champions have distinctly developed personalities, including Arvarodd, who went to Permia and wrote his own sagas, Angantyr Asmundarson, who's not fond of burnt seagull, and the immense Starkad Storvirksson, who good-naturedly loses at chess despite his friends efforts to throw the matches in his favor and enthusiastically leads the charges with a battlecry of "Starkad!"

Another delight in Who's Afraid of Beowulf? is the introduction of Danny Bennett, a BBC television producer obsessed with his own bizarre Kennedy assassination conspiracy theory involving the Milk Marketing Board. Danny, who stumbles onto stories so strange his employers never believe him, is a recurrent character in many of Holt's books. For this outing, he's captured by the Vikings, escapes during the big battle at the cliff-fortified Castle of Borve, is either rescued or recaptured depending on how you look at it, commandeers a bus for his fighting pals, and eventually nabs his story.

Who's Afraid of Beowulf? is filled with details from the great epics, including swords with names like Tyrving and Ifing, lots of consonant-heavy names that I couldn't pronounce, and daring acts likely to be shortcuts to Valhalla. There's even a little romance along with the way and a vivid storm sequence as good wizardry challenges evil. This plot-driven glimpse into heroes worth singing about will leave you smiling.

[ by Julie Bowerman ]

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