There was a lot to love here, but also some places that require trigger warnings. Those would be for rape, gang rape, sex, and violence. The violence probably seems obvious because Vikings, the rape and gang rape weren’t entirely expected for me. Despite the stories about the women enjoying a higher level of equality than most of their contemporaries, it will put you on edge about the treatment of their women even when they aren’t being raped. Even with all that, though, it’s pretty masterful.
In this savage saga of love, war, lust, and magic set in the tenth century, young Sigrid is destined to be the mother of the king of the Nordic lands that would become Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and England.
A devout believer in the old Nordic gods, Sigrid is visited regularly in her dreams by the goddess Freya, who whispers to her of the future. Though Sigrid is beautiful, rich, arrogant, and matchlessly clever, her uncanny ability to foresee the future and manipulate the present guides her through dangerous politics as a bloody war between Vikings and Christians rages on.
Sigrid’s father wants her to marry Erik, a local king, to secure the peace between the Goths and the Swedes. Thinking she is doing Freya’s will, she accepts the marriage offer, only to find that her destiny lies not with Erik but with Sweyn, a warrior who dreams of dethroning Harald Bluetooth, the legendary ruler of Denmark. Will Sigrid sacrifice her will for the greatest Viking kingdom of all time, or will she follow her heart at the risk of losing everything?
There’s a lot to love and gush about. The storytelling in general was great, with the inner lives of both men and women of the ruling class well balanced. The characters are three dimensional and I felt like a good understanding of their intentions and reasoning was given at every turn. The plot moves beautifully at a steady and fast pace. Each character has their own interests and the way those interests intersect or run in contrast to each other brings a great amount of tension to the story and moves the plot along.
Then there’s the actual Viking stuff. I’m not well read or researched in Norse mythology, legend, or history, so it all read to me the same as the world building of say, An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir. Here’s the thing, even when tapping into existing mythology, legend and history of an area, an author can still royally mess up transferring the feeling of it all onto the page. Hildebrandt does the world building beautifully, though. The writing gave a good understanding of the mythology and the associated mysticism that the story was dealing with without it feeling like writing. The rituals and sacrifices and such were interesting and different, though I have no idea how faithful they are to the actual religion of the time. I looked through some other reviews and others on Goodreads did say that the overall representation of the Vikings was accurate.
The religion was woven well into the story and done in a way that makes it seem like religion was central to this people and this conflict. It was interesting to see the way Christians were viewed in the story. Referring to them as “cross worshippers” gave away the derogatory feelings the main characters had toward Christianity and the Christians of the story better than simply talking about not liking them. It relates well how the Vikings of the “old religion” felt about this new religion that was spreading in their ranks. The religion of the main characters was a central part of the motivation for them and their actions, which isn’t something I see a lot in my reading.
As mentioned above, there were also several places where they talk about the accuracy of the historical nature of the story. Rape and gang rape do happen within the story and in realistic ways. The women involved are then denounced in realistic ways. These are still things that happen and that are still reputed to happen in much this same way. While a part of me wants to say to not be surprised, I also get that much of our historical fiction glosses over these parts of our histories, makes them seem like they weren’t a thing, or skips the scene and goes more into the aftermath. Some even like to give consequences for perpetrating such a crime that are still not all that common or, worse, excuse the perpetrators by writing it so that the victim has blame in some part of it. Hildebrandt does none of that.
I get why it can be surprising to find it here. Honestly, a part of me was surprised to find the rape and gang rape and accounts of forced prostitution in a fictional book too but then again, Game of Thrones. The realistic nature of the lives of the women is what is preserved by including these tragic pieces of life. It’s not enjoyable to read about, but I think it’s necessary to include in something like this where it seems that the realistic lives of women was a focus the story specifically meant to highlight, so I do appreciate it in the same way that I appreciate it when some those ghastly scenes are in Game of Thrones. Contrary to some of the more memorable scenes of rape in Game of Thrones (Sansa on her wedding night), the emphasis is on the victim and some of what she goes through. These authors aren’t doing these things to women, they just aren’t going to let it get swept under the rug that they still happen in wartime and that they happened then. They aren’t going to ignore this was and is a thing and a problematic one.
Overall, it’s an outstanding book, especially if appreciate when the women in any given conflict are not overlooked or erased from whatever part of the story they were in. To infer that half the population of any group didn’t have anything at all to do with something happening on their land is ridiculous. Women are affected by war too, especially when it happens in our backyards. We may not have always been in the battlefield, but that doesn’t mean that we had nothing to do with any of it. And if you think we weren’t on the battlefield at all, try checking out Corsets to Camouflage after this just to get started.
I got my copy of the book free from Amazon‘s Kindle First but it’s also available in paperback there and from the Book Depository. I did pay to get the audio upgrade which was magnificently read by Christina Traister. She had a special challenge with some of the characters occasionally being possessed by gods and needing to make the difference obvious to your ear.
You may notice that this is a series and it is the first to be translated into English. It is the fourth book in the series in it’s original language and I didn’t see an explanation for why they were translated out of order, but there was a hypothesis somewhere that it is being translated in chronological order of the events rather than publish order or perhaps by which is the most interesting. I’m not sure. I hope they translate the others, though, because this was amazing and I want to see what happens with Estrid.