- Mass Market Paperback: 544 pages
- Publisher: Tor Books (20 Jan 2003)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0765345021
- ISBN-13: 978-0765345028
- Product Dimensions: 17.6 x 10.7 x 3.5 cm
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,690,109 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
However, this epic, distanced style and the overload of characters and kinship ties makes for a ponderous, slow-moving reading experience. Copying the flow of the sagas, the plot often skips quickly over large battle scenes or dismisses them with a few phrases. The fantasy element is slight; Gunnhild sometimes work magical spells to aid her sons maintain power in Scandanavia. It shows a realistic outlook on magic that mirrors the way contemporaries viewed their world. Anderson also handles the primitive conflict between paganism and emerging Christianity extremely well, and is the most involving dramatic element in this extremely admirable but not very likable farewell novel. Casual readers will probably not enjoy it. Readers who love Anderson or have a fascination with Scandanvian culture will adore ever moment of it.
I say astonishing because, despite my very great admiration for Poul Anderson, I had some misgivings about this project. Anderson was setting himself some stiff competition. Gunnhild, the "Mother of Kings," figures prominently in at least three major medieval works: Snorri Sturluson's "Heimskringla" (a history of the kings of Norway); "The Saga of Egil Skallagrimsson" (which some have thought to be Snorri's work, and which is a biography of one of his ancestors); and, more briefly, but equally memorably, in "The Saga of Burnt Njal." In all of these she figures both as a queen and as a sorceress, and in the last especially as a dangerous lover of younger men.
Each of these works has been translated into English several times. Translators of the first include William Morris, and of the second E.R. Eddison, both major fantasy writers. Those familiar with Eddison's "Worm Ouroboros" will probably remember the passage from George W. Dasent's translation of "Njal's Saga" which is read aloud in the opening pages. Three original works of genius, all of which happen to be closely associated with the development of fantasy literature in English. Not exactly minor predecessors. (Gunnhild also shows up in other sagas, including accounts of the kings of Norway by other hands, and, in a passage parallel to the account in "Njal," in the great "Laxdaela Saga," but these appearances are, I think, of lesser literary importance. The two-volume 1860 edition of Dasent's "Burnt Njal" included an essay on medieval accounts of Gunnhild, now very obsolete, but interesting to compare to Anderson; single-volume reprintings of Dasent's translation omit this, along with the rest of Dasent's elaborate introduction and appendices.)
I was not, however, completely surprised by how successful I found the book to be. Anderson had reworked Icelandic literature in the past, including Snorri's account of a later Norwegian king, Harald Hard-Counsel (in "The Last Viking" trilogy), and the legendary "Hrolf Kraki's Saga," and retold the story of the Volsungs in science fiction terms in "Time Patrolman," before turning to divine mythology (and the relatively obscure accounts of Saxo Grammaticus) in "War of the Gods." He virtually began his career by extending the legendary sagas in "The Broken Sword." In none of these cases, though, were the originals quite so intimidating. He had not lost his touch in "Mother of Kings," despite the length of the story, and the complexity of the histories and legends he was working with.
As a child, Gunnhild learns the ways of withcraft from a Finnish concubine of her father, a powerful Norse chieftain. She also notices Eirik, son of their king. Growing up, Gunnhild keeps her eyes open and learns the relationship between the powerful and the weak. But she doesn't want to stop there. She becomes a spaewife, a master in witchcraft and sorcery, a knower of the Gods.
She marries Eirik, and things are wonderful for a while. She gives him seven sons, all of whom become great warriors, and one daughter, Ragnhild. Forced into a political marriage, Ragnhild gets a reputation as someone whose husbands tend to die before their time. Eirik's strength and Gunnhild's craftiness and knowledge of sorcery make them formidable foes.
Haakon, another son of Eirik's father, has an equally strong claim as Eirik to be King of Norway. This is a time of building alliances for both men among the groups in that part of the world. The fortunes of Eirik and Gunnhild start taking a turn for the worst. They are forced to flee Norway and live for a time in York, England. Anotherv time they flee to the Orkney Islands, part of present-day Scotland. Eirik dies in battle, as do his sons, one by one. Meantime, Christianity comes to that part of the world. Haakon embraces this new religion, partly because his best friend becomes a priest. He expects those in aliiance with him to do the same. But, there are those, including powerful people, who are not happy with the old gods being tossed aside.
This is a great novel. It's a big novel, both in size and in scope, so it is not easy or quick reading. Once again, Anderson shows why he was a master of the genre. The style of writing gives the impression that it was actually written a thousand years ago. Recently translated, it was mispackaged as Fiction instead of History. I know of no other contemporary writer in the field who can consistently do that like Anderson.
This book will take some patience, but it is highly recommended.