Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Real Vikings - #AthelingChronicles #HistoricalFiction #Review

The Cold Hearth cover


"The sons of Cnute are dead men." The dying words of his brother's assailant travel across the North Sea to the English Midlands.

Harald, the king's second son, receives the warning while rebuilding a hall where he hopes to farm and lead a peaceful life with Selia, his Frisian wife. But as the hall nears completion, they learn the family who lived there before them all perished in a single night of bloodshed. Could the grounds be cursed?

Now the threat of unknown enemies casts a long shadow. Should they distrust the brooding Saxon neighbor or the two weapon-bearers they hired for protection? Should they suspect either of the two women they have taken on with the other hirelings? Only their Jewish warrior friend, Ravya ben Naaman, seems above suspicion.


But come, Harald.” Erral motioned to the open doors. He gave orders to a thrall to see to our horses.

Beornstan and Kipp dismounted and followed.

May your hall be blessed,” I said, crossing the threshold. Open-shuttered windows along the two sides let in a goodly amount of light. Many folk inhabited the hall, standing, sitting, or preparing the meal. Children played, and a few elders sat watching. The robust aroma of roasting meat encouraged my stomach to rumble like thunder in the hills.

Conversation among the adults stopped at my entrance, leaving only the joyful cries of the children to fill the hall. I believe Erral must have given a meaningful and menacing look to his folk, for talk resumed as my host took me round to meet everyone. Though a few of the older men— uncles by blood or marriage— barely covered their hatred for all things Danish with the demands of hospitality, most were friendly and welcoming. Wihtlac, the brother-in-law, greeted me warmly and presented his motherless but well-fed young daughters. I met Erral’s sister and her husband, other in-laws, cousins, married and widowed aunts. The mood grew in spirit; I believe most were honored to receive a son of King Cnute— for whether loved, feared, or loathed, my father was still ruler over them— and I am sure more than one wondered if they were greeting a future king. And no one wondered more than me.

Erral ushered me toward an elder-woman who sat on a bench in a corner where there were no drafts. She wore a coarse woolen blanket like a shawl, green kirtle, and leggings. Her thin, white hair was braided and coiled tightly, crowning a wizened, tired face furrowed with creases and grooves that spoke of sun-baked toil and cold hardship. Her eyes revealed the clouded, milky-blue dullness I had beheld on others who could no longer see.

Ealdemoder,” Erral said. His grandmother looked up at the sound of his voice. “I have brought a guest. This is Harald.”

Your health, Ealdemoder,” I said.

And yours, son of kings.”

I had expected her voice to be higher pitched and frayed, but she spoke in soft, measured tones, smooth like worn leather.

Come closer.”

I dropped to one knee before her and leaned in. She reached out with a hand, found my shoulder, and followed it with her fingers until she reached my face. She felt the shape of my jaw and chin, cheekbones and brow before lowering her hand. Her touch was gentle, as if she reached across the gap between the dead and the living.

Is it not frightful what the old and unsighted can get away with?” She laughed whole-heartedly and Erral with her.

When I realized that I had been made the brunt of a jest, I laughed as well. “I think you have a strong, pleasant face, Harald, son of Cnute. No scars yet?”

Scars I have aplenty, Ealdemoder: I am missing a finger, there is a serpentine scar on my forearm, the mark of an arrow high on my chest, and a good-sized rent on my crown.”

You have been busy.”

No, my enemies have been busy.”

Just so. Give us your hand— I’ve already had my way with your face.” The old woman’s lips formed a sly smile.

If I had not enjoyed her wit, I would have felt like fresh meat for the pot. I rested my left hand, the one with the missing finger, palm upward on her bony thigh. She explored the contours and calluses of my hand with care.

A strong hand.” She turned it over, caressing the knuckles. “You have the love of a good woman, do you not?”

I had not expected such a turn. “My wyf, Selia— my treasure.”

Refreshing to hear a man speak so of his wyf. Erral, too, loved his dear wyf.”

I sensed Erral’s discomfort as he shifted his stance.

She was a fine, happy woman, my granddaughter. She died much too young, but many do. Have you met her beautiful children?” She released my hand.

I have. They are indeed worthy of your pride.”

Ealdemoder,” Erral said. “Supper is ready. It is time for food and drink.”

Fine. Snatch the young man from my clutches. If he stays much longer, I’ll become wet in the loins, and that hasn’t happened in years.”

Erral and I laughed together at the old woman’s brazen humor.

Enjoy the meal, Mother,” I said.

And you, Harald, son of kings.”

As Erral and I made to leave, I heard her add, “Keep her safe.”

What was that? I asked, turning.

Your wyf,” the old woman said, her gaze set at nothing, “they will kill her, too.”

Review by Lisabet Sarai

Vikings are popular figures in the romance genre. They’re typically portrayed as the ultimate alpha males: bossy, quarrelsome, fearless, a bit gruff, with few civilized graces. More often than not, they overcome the resistance of the heroines with their sheer physicality, seasoned perhaps with some rough charm and (not infrequently) a spanking.

Although I understand the appeal of these “Viking” heroes, they’re basically indistinguishable from the billionaires, the rock stars or the Navy SEALS that populate other romance sub-genres. They’re pure fantasy, wearing a not-very-convincing historical mask.

Garth Pettersen’s Vikings, in contrast, are the real thing – and they break a lot of stereotypes. For instance, there’s the popular notion that the Vikings swept down in vicious hordes to conquer foreign lands, raping and pillaging their way across the country. In contrast, Pettersen shows us the canny alliances and necessary compromises made by Cnute, the Danish king of Engla-lond during the 11th century. Certainly there were battles, but Cnute cemented his power by marrying the former queen of the country and promising to put her offspring on the throne.

Then there’s the supposed power differential between dominant males and subservient females in Viking romance. In the The Cold Hearth, many of the women characters have an encouraging degree of agency. They advise their sons and husbands, engage in political intrigue, even make war. In this period, women are free to choose their partners. Rape is not unknown but the law requires compensatory payments by the rapist if he is apprehended.

Harald “Harefoot”, King Cnute’s second son and the hero of The Cold Hearth, is courageous and skilled in the military arts. However, he shows none of the arrogance, ambition or volatility we’ve come to expect from the Vikings of romance. Instead, he demonstrates the qualities of a true leader: patience, fairness, generosity and a tendency to think before he acts. His most powerful motivation is his love for his wife Selia. He deplores the weaknesses of his brothers who crave the throne, but his own aspirations are more modest and reasonable – a comfortable and prosperous homestead, a beloved companion, children and peace. Alas, when you’re the son of a king, peace is difficult to come by.

Garth Pettersen manages to bring medieval England to vivid life. I don’t know much about this period. I was surprised and delighted by some of the unexpected aspects of this fascinating novel: the openness about sexual matters; the relatively egalitarian relationship between men and women; the mostly unspoken but ever-present tension between Christianity and the old gods; the degree to which society was governed by explicit laws as well as implicit customs; the multi-cultural nature of the population, which included Danes, Saxons, Normans, Jews and probably many other groups. We don’t tend to think about the language our heroes speak. When Harald and Queen Emma travel to France to confront his treacherous step-brothers, Harald can barely understand them because of linguistic differences. I thought this was brilliantly realistic.

One other aspect of the setting made a deep impression. The Cold Hearth shows us a sparsely populated world of natural abundance. Harald’s England is green and forested. Wild game is plentiful. The land is fertile and with hard work yields its bounties. Life was difficult in the early middle ages, but humans lived in harmony with the earth.

This book clearly involved extensive research. The author’s introductory notes do an excellent job placing the characters in a historical context. The Old English and Old Danish terms scattered through the text provide a sense of authenticity without being confusing. They never felt gratuitous, especially since the author provides a glossary at the start of the book.

Overall, I found reading this book a joy. I suspect that there will be a fourth book in the Atheling Chronicles, in which a reluctant Harald will briefly assume the throne. I’m putting myself on Mr. Pettersen’s mailing list so I don’t miss it.

About the Author

Garth Pettersen is a Canadian writer living in the Fraser Valley near Vancouver, BC. When he's not writing, he is riding horses or working with young disabled riders. Garth's short stories have appeared in a number of anthologies and in journals such as Blank Spaces, The Spadina Literary Review, and The Opening Line Literary 'Zine. His story River's Rising was awarded an Honourable Mention for the Short Story America 2017 Prize, and his fantasy novella River Born, was one of two runners-up for the Windsor Editions (UK) Short Fiction Prize. Garth Pettersen's historical fiction series, The Atheling Chronicles is published by Tirgearr Publishing. All three books available at most online outlets (The Swan's Road, The Dane Law, and The Cold Hearth).

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Garth Pettersen will be awarding a $10 Amazon or Barnes and Noble GC to a randomly drawn winner via rafflecopter during the tour.

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Goddess Fish Promotions said...

Thanks for hosting!

Garth Pettersen said...

Thank you, Lisabet Sarai, for hosting this stop on The Cold Hearth's book tour, and thank you for the comprehensive and well-written book review. I am so glad you enjoyed the book and appreciate my research. You've made my day.

Sherry said...

This sounds like a very interesting book.

James Robert said...

Thank you so much for taking time to bring to our attention another great read. I enjoy these tours and finding out about many terrific books.

Jeanna Massman said...

I love the cover! The colors are beautiful!

Danielle merkle said...

Sounds like a good read

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