|Maidensong is a Viking tale, with the typical slave/master theme, the small village setting, the big boats sailing away on raids, the skalds relating tales, etc. It is also a Viking tale with numerous non-standard aspects, and that is what makes it a solid 4 heart book. The best way to review this book might be to list all the things that are frequently annoying about Viking tales and just add ‘not’ to each.
Rika is the skald here, certainly a non-traditional career for a woman. She was trained by the legendary skald Mangus, her “father.” Mangus had rescued her from an ice floe after she had been ordered set adrift by her biological father, who was suffering deep anguish as a result of the death of his wife in childbirth. Rika has spent a lifetime learning the tales of a skald, traveling with Mangus, but her idyllic existence comes to an abrupt end when the village they are visiting is raided by Bjorn the Black, in retaliation for a raid on his homeland. Bjorn takes the sassy-mouthed Rika and her simple-minded brother home with him as thralls, owned by him as he would own livestock.
Bjorn’s village is under the control of his brother Gunnar and his wife, known not-so-affectionately as the Dragon. Bjorn is an honorable man who longs to work the land and lives by the strict moral code of his people. Gunnar is a snake. He wants Rika for his own and is galled no end when she refuses him. Unwilling to have her around the village as a constant reminder of his failure, he launches a complex plot to threaten and persuade Rika to let herself be traded into marriage with the village’s Muslim trading partner in Miklagard (Constantinople). To add insult to injury, he orders Bjorn to take Rika there, ensuring that she arrives “pure.” The journey and Rika’s stay in Constantinople comprise the bulk of the book.
Laying aside the “Vikingness” of the tale, this book has much to recommend it. Bjorn and Rika are both obviously products of their time and place and, at the same time, have a depth of feeling and humanity that transcends it. The two of them are both blessed and cursed by their deep sense of honor and their pride. Their behavior remains consistent with their character and their time and place, and, at the same time, is allowed to evolve as they evolve. The depth of their emotions – particularly Bjorn’s humiliation at Rika’s apparent rejection of him and Rika’s fear for her brother’s safety – is palpable and moving. Even some of the secondary characters are as well drawn and complex as the primary pair.
Additionally, the tale is vastly more complex than one would expect, and is so well paced and plotted that you are drawn further and further into it, particularly as it frequently seems that it will not be possible for the protagonists to free themselves just in the nick of time from their various predicaments. The mesh of religions and cultures and the vast complexity of Constantinople were vividly rendered, but so too was the usually gloomy Viking village.
In terms of the frequently annoying “Vikingness,” the book offered a relatively deep exploration of the basis of the Norse religion, its various deities and practices, one that went well beyond the usual “by Thor’s hammer!” explicative. The interweaving of the traditional Norse religion with Christianity and Islam was also an interesting aspect of the story. Further, the author has a deft hand with the introduction of Norse words to add verisimilitude without the lazy shortcut of offering immediate translation to English – she gives the reader room, and context, to work out the meanings for herself. Finally, the characters manage to straddle two worlds, being neither what one could reasonably expect of “real” Norse villagers of this early era – inarticulate, illiterate, superstitious, narrow-minded – nor what often appears in Viking tales – walking anachronisms that speak and behave as if they time-traveled from the modern era.
In short, this could be a solid book in any setting, but it is remarkably strong for a Viking tale. It is also remarkably strong for a debut novel, and I look forward to reading more from Diana Groe.