Though marketed as fantasy, this densely written, fast-paced tale, set in Norway in the 10th century during the clash of paganism and Christianity, reads more like a grandly told history describing the life of Gunnhild, the mother of Norse kings. Its huge scope and the long time frame of events mean that the personal often gets lost in the political, but with meticulous research, Anderson (War of the Gods) brings to life the bloodthirsty Norse as they evolve into the looting, plundering Vikings of popular lore. After learning witchcraft from the Saami, Gunnhild schemes to marry a powerful Norse king, Eirik. The power behind the throne, she bears nine children, mostly boys, and ensures her husband's rule by weaving a web of spies and orchestrating a murder or two. When Eirik dies in battle, she works to further the careers of her sons, many of whom prove unworthy of leadership because of their tyranny, arrogance and stinginess. Less than engaging, global-level power struggles tend to take the place of individual conflicts, while the continually shifting point of view fragments any sustained emotional impact. Since some of the rival kings are far more appealing characters than Gunnhild's progeny, readers may find themselves rooting for them instead. This may well be what the author intended, but the result is as incongruous as the witchcraft that while interesting does little to further the plot. Norse scholars will be pleased, but those expecting another Mists of Avalon, about a strong woman at the cusp of Christianity and paganism, will be disappointed. (Sept. 27)
FYI:The late Poul Anderson has a second novel this season, a reissue of
Conan the Rebel, reviewed above.