Sunday, January 29, 2012

A Trip to the Light Isles- Why the Vikings are less than trustworthy....

More often than not, the types of books I enjoy have an air of mystery or suspense to them.  You're never altogether sure which direction the author's going to take.  I love that; I love that building of anticipation that comes from not knowing where the story is going.  Oh sure, I might be able to make an educated guess as to how the plotline is going to fall out, or what kind of character development is going to happen, but overall I like being along for the ride.

In fact, usually when I can see the layout of a story, I lose interest rapidly.  However, this time was very different.  In the first twenty pages or so of Wolfskin, by Juliet Marillier, the author sets out the entire premise of her story; I won't lie, it's like seeing a train wreck before it happens.  And the author gives you the choice: read on, and see how it plays out in real time, or set the book aside and find something a little tamer.  I'll admit, I did debate for a day or so.  Can I put myself through this psycho-drama?  Can I handle what's coming?

After getting my crash gear on, I dove back into the book with vigor, and pushed through it.  Don't get me wrong, it's not some badly written piece of literature that you have to work at to finish.  It is altogether sublime in its development of characters and building of tension.  Instead of a usual back country winding road that I usually drive, I've signed up to swim across Lake Champlain.  The challenge is seemingly obvious, but the far shore is still hidden by fog.  All I have to rely on is the author's elusive offer for a good ending.  I had to hope that would be enough.

Opening this story with an old Norse legend of two men who swear to each other a bond of blood brotherhood, the author sets the stage for an intense emotional rollercoaster.  The two main characters, Eyvind and Somerled, are a study in contrast.  From the time they met as boys on the cusp of manhood, both cling to the other, seeing a perfect compliment and companion.  They, too, swear a bond, one that is based on faith, meant to last an eternity.  Both have large dreams and the dedication to bring those dreams to life.  Sadly, the dreams of one will make a living nightmare for the other.

The author uses these two characters to explore a complex framework- the permanence we associate with promises and vows versus the constant change inherent to life itself.  In a time when certainty is necessary to maintain any semblance of civilization, making vows or giving one's word acts as a cornerstone to the functioning of society.  The fabric of trust needed in keeping a community together and thriving is based on that concept.  But the old axiom still applies- people change.  It is a universal law that we change over time; none of us are the same from one year to the next, because the experiences we have alter us and our perceptions of the world around us.  So how can you have both?  Is it even possible to make a deep vow to someone and be able to keep it over the years?  What if the vow is made in error of judgment?  How do you come to grips with trying to keep a promise, knowing that the other party is not worthy of the loyalty? 

The setting for this is one of my favorite spots in the world- the Orkney Islands off the coast of northern Scotland.  From the time of the Neanderthals, the smalls islands of the Orkneys have had many waves of inhabitants.  The author uses the backdrop of the late 8th century-early 10th century on the Isles, and she cleverly gives a plausible story for the settlement of the Vikings and the reaction of the inhabitants (mostly of Pictish decent).  I've seen Maes Howe, Skara Brae, and the Stones of Stenness, all of which are featured in some form in the story.  I think the author did an excellent job of describing the geography, as well breathing life into what is mostly conjecture on the culture and society of the Orkneys during this period of history.

Despite my trepidation at the outset, I have to say this story evolved in an amazing fashion.  If you have any interest in Viking culture or the Orkney Islands, this is a very good read.  Or if perhaps you like that feeling of seeing the challenge at the outset and like a good train wreck, this is might be a book for you as well.  I might still hesitate a little when this author makes an offer like this in another story, but at least I know I'll be in for a good time before the crash and burn.

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