Book Review: BERSERKER By Emmy Laybourne

The Old West collides with Norse magic for dark, unexpected adventure in BERSERKER!

There are some books that– based on the description alone– don’t feel like they should work. Admittedly, Berserker was one of them. Deadly ancient Norse powers and an Old West immigration story? How the heck would that manage to come together cohesively? Now I’m humbly prepared to eat some crow because Emmy Laybourne blends those two elements together so well!

In the days of old, the Norse gods gave the Vikings with fierce gifts to employ as they explored and conquered the world in Odin’s name. With abilities from immense strength and weather control to large-scale craftsmanship, the powerful Nytteson protected the Norwegian people with their talents. But powers are only passed down when both family lines have Nytteson heritage, and soon the gifted descendants began to die out. By 1883, most people consider Nytte to be a mere myth, but Hanne Hamstead knows differently.

Hanne is the rarest and most dangerous type of Nytteson: A Berserker. She’s able to kill viciously and efficiently, and she does so against her own volition whenever someone she loves is physically threatened. Her mother left just after Hanne’s brutal powers emerged, leaving her with a weathered father and three siblings: Stieg, a weather-controlling Storm-Rend, Knut, an ultra-strong Oar-Breaker, and Sissel, a girl of 12 with no powers of her own. They survive on their own and use their gifts inconspicuously… until the day Hanne’s father is threatened by three men and she kills them all. Now she and her siblings must run from both the law and powerful men looking to collect the remaining Nytteson, fleeing to the new frontier in America to find a long-lost uncle who is also a Berserker.

In Montana, Owen Bennett is just looking for honest work to help him survive through the winter. When he stumbles upon the Hamstead siblings in distress and they offer him a job as their wilderness guide, Owen has no idea that murderous powers, bounty hunters, and a warrant for Knut’s arrest are among the dangers associated with the position. But soon, he’s in too deep to turn back. And with Hanne around, he’s not sure he’d want to, either. Can Owen and the four siblings make it through the lawless and wild Old West in one piece?

Berserker is a fast-paced story with plenty of originality. We’ve all seen a set of characters with powers before, but the unique use in the Old West setting and the consequences of using Nytte give this journey an edge. The siblings’ powers may help them out in a bind, but using that ability also punishes them in different ways and slows their progress; a definite risk when they’re trying to maintain a low profile and race to safety. The setting has a palpable, gritty feel as the group travels through a world where nature is wild and unforgiving and the early settlers are equally ruthless.

Hanne is an intriguing character because her power is very much beyond her. She doesn’t want to kill anyone, but there’s a certain grace in her destruction. She’s a cautious person, but she’s skilled and sensible. For instance, she forms a special connection with Owen early on, but she keeps him at arm’s length because either she’ll kill him if his intentions are less noble than she first thought or she’ll kill to protect him if she falls in love. Thankfully, Owen genuinely is a simple frontier cowboy with a good heart, determined to prove himself despite a troubled upbringing. The story isn’t too heavy on the romance and I wish we got a few more sweet moments between them, but you definitely root for this coupling.

Of course, the secondary characters in the novel do a lot to keep things interesting. I particularly liked Hanne’s older brother Stieg, who’s the eternal optimist of the group. Knut is described as having some developmental challenges (for instance, he was taken out of school early because he can’t read or write) but has a big heart and cares deeply. Little Sissel is more of a challenge as the whiny, typically bratty baby of the group, but as the young weakling in a rare, powerful family, you feel for her at times. As the family and Owen weave together, it’s easy to see how much the characters depend on each other and the important traits each brings into the fold.

I was also surprisingly intrigued by Rolf, the bounty hunter sent by a powerful Norwegian diplomat to collect the Hamsteads with an arrogant accomplice. Rolf doesn’t have Nytte, but he’s a scholar of the Old Gods and who thinks the Nytteson are incredibly special, almost angelic. His beliefs sometimes conflict with his job– convincing those gifted people to enter the care of his wealthy employer– especially as he begins to doubt that his boss means to protect them.

The overall story moves pretty quickly, but takes its time to explore unfamiliar settings when necessary. The big culminating moment at the end of the novel was a bit strange, but not necessarily bad. It just felt like things worked out a little too easily (thanks to a dash of deus ex machina), but the scene will likely have further implications in later books, so we’ll see.

With a distinctive vibe, magic, action, and cowboys to boot, Berserker covers rarely charted territories with fierce precision. We can’t wait to see where the series goes from here!

RATING: 4 OUT OF 5 STARS

Berserker is out now. You can order it via…

Amazon | B&N | IndieBound 

Are Hanne’s powers a gift from the old Norse gods, or a curse?

Her brother Stieg swears their powers are a gift from the old gods, but Hanne Hemstad knows she is truly cursed. It’s not Stieg’s fault that their father is dead, their mother has left, and their brother Knut has been accused of a crime he didn’t commit.

No, the fault lies with Hanne and her inability to control her murderous “gift”–she is a Berserker. When someone she loves is threatened, she flies into a killing state. The siblings must leave Norway for the American frontier or risk being brought to justice.

Aided by a young cowboy who agrees to be their guide, Hanne and her siblings use their powers to survive the perilous trail, where blizzards, wild animals, and vicious bounty hunters await.

Will they be able to reach their uncle, the one man Hanne believes may be able to teach her how to control her drive to kill? With Berserker, Emmy Laybourne, the author of Monument 14, presents her vision of an American west studded with Viking glory.

About Author

Kait is a New Englander, a YA book and adaptation lover, and a Slythindor, as well as a red velvet and red wine enthusiast. She likes to like things. Catch her on Twitter: @kaitmary

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