Book Review: The Norse Queen (The Norsewomen Book 1) by Johanna Wittenberg
Publication Date: 11th February 2020
Publisher: Shellback Studio
Page Length: 318 Pages
Genre: Historical Fiction / Vikings
Ninth-century Norway, the dawn of the Viking era, -- a land shattered into thirty warring kingdoms. A woman could seize power, if she was bold enough. Daughter of a Norse king, fifteen-year-old Åsa dreams of becoming a shield-maiden. When she spurns a powerful warlord, he rains hellfire on her family, slaughtering her father and brother and taking her captive. To protect her people, Åsa must wed her father’s killer. To take vengeance, she must become his queen.
“The daughter of this house has a proud destiny in the web of fate.”
The Norse Queen is fast-paced adventure loosely based on legendary Viking Queen Åsa of Tromøy who lived in the 9th century. We delve into a world of warriors and strong women who meet their fate head-on, and a light touch of magic that adds to the storytelling part of this engrossing novel.
Fifteen-year-old Åsa dreams of becoming a shield-maiden. Living in the small kingdom of Tromøy, on Norway’s southern tip, she grows up with a relative degree of freedom and responsibility. Following her mother’s death in childbirth, she is now the lady of the settlement, welcoming visitors and ensuring the household is run smoothly, especially when her father, King Harald, is away. But in her free time, she loves to best her brother, Gyrd, in play swordfights. Trained by old Jarl Borg, a longterm fighting companion of her father, she revels in honing her skills, like a true warrior.
When handsome young Olaf – the son of Harald’s former friend but now enemy, Gudrød of Borre – visits Tromøy, she is instantly smitten. Her head full of romantic dreams, she is horrified when the true nature of Olaf’s visit is revealed: she is invited to wed not Olaf, but his old father, Gudrød. Angrily, she refuses the offer, as is her right, and Olaf is sent back to Borre, empty-handed. But little does she know the chain of events her reaction has caused.
The arrival of the völva Heid, a highly respected wise-woman and shaman, in Olaf’s wake doesn’t change Åsa’s intentions, and eventually, even the healer leaves, frustrated, her parting words a soon-to-be-fulfilled warning.
Back in Borre, Olaf faces his father’s wrath. Despite his growing feelings for Åsa, yet keen to impress his harsh father, his failure sees Gudrød leave him behind when he raises his followers, including Olaf’s half-brother, Hrolf, and travels by sea to attack Tromøy.
When Gudrød kills Åsa’s father and brother in face-to-face combat, his incredible Serkland sword cutting through their weapons like cheese, her fate is sealed. Her people dead or fleeing, she is taken to Borre and locked up by Heid in the bower, safely out of Gudrød’s clutches, whilst awaiting the auspicious date of her wedding. When she manages to escape only days before, it is Olaf who rescues her from danger. Yet even a night of frantic love-making does not stop him from taking her back to Borre.
But an unexpected surprise awaits Åsa on her wedding night…
“But I will have my revenge.”
Åsa is a brave young girl growing up with dreams of being a shield-maiden. Yet fate has conspired against her. From the tranquil, peaceful setting in Tromøy, where she enjoyed the respect and indulgence of her people, her enforced journey to Borre to wed her father’s murderer is a steep learning curve for her. But she is also aware that these things happened all across the Viking realms (for there were many small kingdoms and earldoms). Daughters are meant to wed for political gain, to seal deals. But in her head, she is quite content to stay as her father’s host, the lady of Tromøy. When she is suddenly torn from this warm embrace of safety and security, her mind is set. She knows her life is not safe, but she is more concerned about the people left behind who – with the harvest and food stores burnt by Gudrød’s men – face starvation. This is one of her prime motivators for her escape, even though she knows, deep down, that Gudrød would chase her and wreak his revenge.
It’s great to see a strong female character in Åsa, who, after her teenage bubble of happiness is burst, is aware of her position as daughter of a king, although fate can change swiftly. Gudrød still seeks to sacrifice her even after their wedding, but aided by the völva Heid, she realizes that there are greater forces at work, forces she can use to her advantage. Heid keeps her safe, but for how long?
Heid, the wise-woman, is another strong female character. She is highly respected amongst Viking communities. Her visions feared by ordinary men and leaders, influencing important political decisions. Her high rank is obvious from the beginning. Of indeterminate age and crippled, we learn very little about her background, until near the end, when an intriguing link to her past is revealed. Like Åsa, I remained uncertain about Heid’s true intensions, which are cleverly weaved into the plot. Heid and her apprentices keep Åsa safe – for the moment, but the völva has her own agenda.
Meanwhile, Olaf – whilst fantasizing about Åsa – still wants to impress his father, showing that he is a worthy heir. When Gudrød goes on campaign to reclaim the ancient ‘Shining Hall’ of his ancestors from the Danes, Olaf joins proudly, but when he is separated from his host during battle, and attacked, it becomes clear to him that his half-brother, Hrolf, has sinister plans for him. Olaf’s long, enforced, journey east is one of self-discovery and revelation. He has come into his own, and dreams of returning home with riches beyond his father’s dreams. At a market in Bolghar, he sets eyes on wootz, a metal used to create Gudrød’s miraculous sword and which the king has always wanted to use to arm his huskarlar – his followers. Finally back in Borre, Olaf revels in his father’s gratitude on his return with the precious gifts.
To me, Olaf is the weakest character in the story. Not weak in terms of the author’s writing, but by his own indecisiveness and eager-to-please attitude towards his father. He grew up bullied by Hrolf, laughed at by Gudrød. A boy desperate for his father’s approval. Not of harsh warrior material like Gudrød or Hrolf, Olaf has struggled all his life to gain his father’s respect. This affects all his actions, and at times I wanted to shake him for not accepting what an ogre his father really is. By the end of the novel, I still don’t trust him.
Ulf is one of the captured people from Tromøy, a true friend to Åsa. A smith, he is a quiet character who keeps his head down and gets on with the work Gudrød assigns to him in the smithy, much to the annoyance of the resident smith, Arne, who would rather see Ulf dead. And Ulf knows that his life hangs in the balance, until he can forge a sword made of wootz steel. With the precious metal finally in his hands, he must act swiftly to secure his survival – and that of Åsa.
“I must learn all I can, and protect the innocents.”
Johanna Wittenberg conveys the way of life in southern Norway beautifully. The landscapes are vivid, with all their magnificence and dangers. She recreates the seasons well, and shows us how precarious life was when stocks are destroyed or shared by force. Both at home in Tromøy as well as in Borre, Åsa’s life becomes a routine that sees her deal with the relevant duties, especially during the seasonal festivals – Jøl, and the spring, summer and autumn equinoxes, all very important to Viking life with their rituals to appease the gods to grant them a successful harvest or to keep them safe and fed during the harsh winters. The rituals form part of the visual narrative, which evoked in me a sense of wonderful, old-fashioned storytelling. Whilst the author doesn’t spare some gory details, she does this with the respect the Vikings would have accorded to the animals they slaughtered.
The smallest details bring the setting and the characters to life. Ms Wittenberg dispenses with clichés so often found in novels featuring Vikings, but instead draws on her excellent, clearly in-depth, research in creating a world full of challenges and dangers, but also beauty, joy and glimpses of happy times. Even the tiny touch of magic feels natural in the overall context of the ancient Viking communities.
The Norse Queen by Johanna Wittenberg is a wonderful novel, a saga about the challenges a young woman faces to finally fulfil her destiny. With flesh-and-blood characters, a vibrant setting, and a fast pace throughout, it really pulls you into the Viking past. Although there are two sequels, The Norse Queen can easily be read as a standalone novel as all loose strands are neatly tied up at the end. But I’ll just have to get the sequels to see what happens next.
A highly recommended read!
Review by Cathie Dunn.
The Coffee Pot Book Club.
Like her Viking forebears, Johanna Wittenberg has sailed to the far reaches of the world. She lives on a fjord in the Pacific Northwest with her husband, whom she met on a ship bound for Antarctica. For fascinating facts about the Viking Age, visit Johanna’s website.
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