Vinland Saga (ヴィンランド・サガ) is an ongoing series started in 2005 by Makoto Yukimura (author of Planetes).
Broadly, Thorfinn is a young boy in Iceland at the turn of the 11th century with dreams of being a great viking warrior as well as seeing the strange Vinland Leif Erickson keeps talking about. After sneaking away to follow his father to war at age 6 he finds the world is a harsher place than he thought and spends the next couple decades trying to make a utopia in Vinland without war a possibility.
More specifically the manga is split into four “parts” (Invasion of England c. 1002-1014 ad; German Farm c. 1014-1020 ad; Great North Sea War c. 1021 ad; and Sailing Westward c.1023-1024 ad) with each one telling a fairly self contained story which makes summarizing the whole series a little difficult.
Vinland Saga is a story about themes, about how revenge and hatred will only destroy you and how even though seeking a path of not killing your enemies may be the right one, its certainly not an easy one. It carries this humanistic tone to everything it does as rather than vilify its violent characters it sets them up as products of the time who simply dont know anything different almost pitying them in the process. Its a bit detached from its characters because of that, especially in the first part where Thorfinn is barely a character, but it allows it to present a turn of the 11th century view of northern Europe in realistic ways removed from coming off judgemental or seemingly influenced by modern views on social norms really focusing on the converging cultures happening at the time.
The characters it does get close to are almost all universally great to boot. Askeladd, the adopted father/bitter enemy of Thorfinn who dominates the first part, is a complex individual who’s both a vile rogue and charismaticaly enthralling to the point you can’t help but root for him even after he leads a massacre of a village. Once Thorfinn gets himself together he really grows up into someone who has a lot of inner turmoil wrestling with the sins of his past, the fears hes let his father down, and the dreams of his future. There’s also a number of historical characters who show up (Leif Erickson, Canute the Great, Thorkell the Tall and Thorfinn himself is actually a real person) who add flavor for anyone who knows their histories.
For a series taking place not just at the height of the Viking age, but also starting with the conquest of England by Canute, there’s obviously action too and what action it is! The battles are bloody and again fairly realistic (for the most part, in musou-like fashion named characters have a tendency to be able to take on hordes with ease) in ways you don’t usually see for media featuring early medieval combat. This lets the series balance between both reveling in its action, while also condemning the violence of it, in a very delicate way by showing you the unglamorous carnage of it all.
Thorfinn being fairly detached most of the first part can lead to long sections without a strong central character causing some detachment for them as does taking so long to get to know some people. It also means that there’s a number of secondary and tertiary characters who show up frequently the series never develops causing some confusion as to who they’re supposed to be, which can be made more difficult during the battle scenes where its not always clear if the people you’re seeing are anyone you’re supposed to know or not.
In a more meta issue, the manga is published monthly in Japan so it only gets about one new volume a year whereas the English release was originally done as an omnibus1 which is now current with Japan, so its taking like 2 years to get each new English edition. You’re going to be waiting a while to get any progress unfortunately.
For gore averse people do note, some of the violence is a bit much (medieval battlefields were pretty harsh places) so there is a fair amount of blood and limbs getting chopped off if that is something you can’t handle.
Yes. Made by Wit Studio and airing from July-December 2019 it covered the first part of the anime and is good. Like, really good. It was an Amazon Prime exclusive, go watch it as it was one of the best series of 2019. Wit Studio has stated they want to make another season though nothing has been officially started as of yet.
Weeb Level: 0/10- Even when it can get a bit silly at times with characters acting maybe a bit more modern than you’d think, this is still a series about VIKINGS and doesn’t have any kind of tropes or Japanese-ness to it.
Fanservice: 3/10- This is hard to rate as its really erratic. There is nudity in places, almost entirely used without actually being sexy as its just matter of fact stuff for the time (people sleeping with few to no clothes, slave auctions, breastfeeding) and even then it will go a long time without having anything pop up.
Quality: 9.5/10- Likely to be 10/10 once it finishes in Japan.
Where to get it: Kodansha Comics has released the whole thing as omnibuses available at any Barnes and Noble and it is available on Comixology Unlimited for online reading.