"Northlanders" #21-28's "The Plague Widow" is the third extended story to be told in the series so far, as Brian Wood switches between shorter and longer tales in his series about Vikings. Now that it's over, I think it's safe to say that "The Plague Widow" is easily the strongest of those lengthy stories to date. From start to finish, "The Plague Widow" has proven itself worthy of the reader's attention.
With modern day worries of biological warfare and sealing borders, "The Plague Widow" manages to be topical while still being set in the early 11th century. What seemed like a logical enough decision at first, sealing a settlement's borders for the winter to wait out the plague, turned into a nightmare involving blackmail, murder, coups, and finally escape for Hilda and her daughter Karin. It's safe to say that each new chapter managed to have their situation shift from bad to worse, even as Wood cleverly avoided typical cliffhanger endings. Each issue felt more like the chapter of a historical novel, pausing at the end of one series of events but still drawing the reader back for more.
This final chapter serves in many ways not only as a conclusion, but as an epilogue to "The Plague Widow." As Hilda and Karin travel away from the rest of the settlement searching for a new home, it's a different sort of tone for this last part of their story. Instead of the familiar dangers inside the settlement, we see them in an equally bad setting of the empty wilderness alongside the Volga River. There's no shelter from the cold here, nothing to keep the wild animals away, and other parties of warriors who might prey on two women are roving the lands. So even as things wind down, there's still a sense of doom hanging over the pair. You want to see them succeed after everything they've been through in the previous seven issues, but it's hard to not know that their chances are bleak at best. It's a mixture of inevitable defeat and hope of victory that Wood weaves into the story, and I found myself surprised at how much I'd come to care for our duo of Viking women over the past eight months.
Leandro Fernandez is an artist I've enjoyed ever since encountering his art on "Queen & Country," and over the years he's just gotten better by leaps and bounds. I love the smooth, open way that he draws characters, and how he and colorist Dave McCaig work together to provide a stark, cold landscape for them to exist within. Everything from a mangy wolf to the ice-covered shores and surface of the Volga River has a cold texture to them, and they sell to the reader the danger that Wood has placed them in. I think best of all is how Fernandez understands when to put lots of detail into the backgrounds, and when to let the stark emptiness of the surroundings form their own setting for "Northlanders." This is not only the best art from Fernandez I've seen to date, this is also some of the most beautiful "Northlanders" art in a series that's had nothing but strong artists.
"Northlanders" is a tough potential sell to the uninitiated, a series of stories only connected by all containing Vikings in some way, shape, or form. Reading "The Plague Widow," though, just goes to show how versatile this series is. This is a story I'll cheerfully buy again in collected form; Wood, Fernandez, and McCaig have done an excellent job. If you haven't read this latest "Northlanders" story, don't let it pass you by.