Bloodtide and the Volsunga Saga

I first read Melvin Burgess’ Bloodtide as a teenager, and it’s been a few years since my last reread. Bloodtide is a post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel. The post-apocalyptic part is the London that’s been cut off from the rest of the world after the gangs got too big. (Maybe not a proper apocalypse, but it it’s treated as one). The sci-fi part is the genetically engineered ‘half men’, who the humans think are monsters … but they’re no more monstrous than any of the human characters.

And then there’s the gods.

Bloodtide is a retelling of a small part of the Volsunga Saga, the family history before the better known tale of Sigurd and Brunhilde. (Burgess treated that in a sequel some years later.) The Volsons are one of two big-shot families in the city. The youngest Volson children are twins, Siggy (Sigmund) and Signy, and the story starts with Signy being married off, to create an alliance. Hopefully to create peace.

But Odin shows up the night of her wedding. And as always when Odin gets involved with humans, things get fucked.

Because it’s retelling a legend, because it’s a story of revenge that doesn’t get enacted for many years, the novel is weirdly paced. It’s disturbing event after disturbing event, some of which drives the story, some of which just seems random if you don’t know it’s there because it was there in the saga.

I’ve read the saga, or this part of it, since I read Bloodtide last, and it’s funny the way they combined in my head. The way Signy’s fate in the saga supplanted her fate in the novel in my memory. I was struck, rereading this, just how screwed over Signy is by the story she lives in – and also by the way Burgess draws attention to how screwed over Signy is.

The first time Odin shows up, he leaves a knife, embedded in glass like Excalibur in the stone; and none can remove the knife except the youngest Volson, Siggy. This pisses Signy’s new husband off no end (and he never ceases in coveting the knife). So we have this scene:

In a little fit of resentment, Signy made a movement towards the knife, then stopped herself. It wasn’t just that she wanted it for Conor. The fact was, she was scared she might have been able to remove it herself. Of them all, only she had not been given the chance to take the knife from the lift shaft. The boys were all put first. Maybe the knife could have been hers instead of Siggy’s. Odin had touched Siggy, but he had embraced her. Everyone seemed to have forgotten that.

Of course, no-one touched by Odin has a good life. And Signy’s is bitterest of all.

It’s a strange book. And it’s a strange choice of story, to retell as a YA novel. More because of that bitterness than because of all the violence and other disturbing themes. And it’s odd that I like it, because usually I hate stories where all the characters are awful people. Maybe because it’s obvious here how events have shaped that in them. But certainly Bloodtide transfixed me as a teenager. And I wasn’t disappointed rereading it as an adult.

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