30 January, 2009

Far After Gold, by Jen Black. Book review

Edition reviewed: Quaestor2000, 2009. ISBN 978-1-906836-03-0. 186 pages.

Disclaimer: Far After Gold is published by Quaestor2000, who are also publishing my novel Paths of Exile. However, I read and reviewed Far After Gold before Quaestor2000 expressed interest in Paths of Exile.

Set in 10th-century Scotland, Far After Gold is a historical romance charting the relationship between Emer, a Hebridean chieftain’s daughter kidnapped by Viking* pirates, and Flane, the handsome young Viking warrior who buys her as a slave. All the characters are fictional, though I suspect that Skuli, chief of Flane’s village, may be the eponymous founder of Ullapool.

Emer is a chieftain’s daughter from the tiny island of Pabaigh in the Scottish Hebrides. Her life changes for ever when she is kidnapped by Viking raiders and sold as a slave in the Norse town of Dublin. Her buyer, a handsome and carefree young Norse warrior named Flane Ketilsson, takes her back to his home at Skuli’s Steading on the north-west coast of Scotland, intending to keep Emer as his concubine when he marries Skuli’s daughter Katla. However, Emer and Katla both have other ideas, and Flane finds his life becoming increasingly complicated. Emer refuses to sleep with him until he marries her, Katla wants to get rid of Emer altogether, and another warrior in the settlement wants Emer for himself. The ensuing conflict threatens Emer’s life and finally forces Flane to make a choice between love and power.

Far After Gold is an enjoyable read, with all the elements one would expect from a romance. The hero is handsome and has a tender side, both the rival women are beautiful, and the reader is left in no doubt whatsoever about the two leads’ physical attraction to one another. While the relationship between Emer and Flane is the main focus of the story, the novel is also rich in historical detail. The title is a quotation from a Swedish runic inscription set up by a mother in memory of her sons, “they fared like men, far after gold”, and Flane quotes some of the cheerfully pragmatic Norse proverbs from the poem Havamal. As well as everyday life in a Norse chieftain’s hall, including the bathing facilities (I’m afraid the myth of the unwashed hairy Viking is just that, a myth), the novel also brings Norse customs to life through Emer’s eyes. Emer is unfamiliar with Norse ways, and some of the customs are startling, even shocking, to her, such as the acceptance of single combat (the holmgangr) as a method of settling arguments and the businesslike nature of a Norse wedding ceremony. As she grows closer to Flane she has to learn about the society that shaped him, and her discovery that there is more to Norse society than mindless violence is shared with the reader. One aspect I liked is that the novel doesn’t make a great fuss about religious differences, even though Emer is Christian and Flane is not. This tolerance, on the pagan Norse side at least, is reflected in some archaeological artefacts, such as the jeweller’s mould from tenth-century Denmark that was designed to cast a Thor’s hammer amulet side by side with Christian cross pendants.

Flane is an attractive character, cheerful and humorous. He comes over as just a little bit immature at the start of the novel, wanting to have his cake and eat it, acting on impulse without much regard for the consequences, and unwilling to make a difficult decision until he is forced into it. He seems genuinely baffled that Emer doesn’t fall into his bed at the first opportunity, and his willingness to wait for her to do so rather than force her seems to be due in about equal parts to a belief in his own irresistible attractiveness and a desire for a quiet life. In some ways Emer and her rival for Flane’s affections, the chieftain’s daughter Katla, are the stronger characters. Katla in particular is familiar from the Icelandic sagas, an outspoken woman at least as determined as the men around her. Emer is a mixture of sweet and sharp, na├»ve and sarcastic, and displays considerable courage. Whether a Norse warrior would really have put up with quite so much defiant back-chat from a girl he bought in a slave market is perhaps a moot point, but Flane admits to a friend that Emer intrigues him, and maybe that is explanation enough.

The novel is written in straightforward modern prose, with no expletives that I noticed. As one would expect in a romance there are a number of explicit sex scenes, but they don’t overwhelm the rest of the story. The character names are authentic as far as I can tell, always something I look for in historical fiction. I recognised most of the Norse names, Emer is an Irish name (wife of the hero Cuchulainn in Irish legend), and Katla is the name of a volcano in Iceland, highly appropriate for the tempestuous chieftain’s daughter. Landscape descriptions were sufficiently clear for me to work out most of the locations in the story, though I would have liked a map to confirm whether I was right!

Warm historical romance with all the classic features, in the unusual setting of tenth-century Norse Scotland.

More information on Jen Black's blog.

*’Viking’ and ‘Norse’ are sometimes used interchangeably to refer to the people of Scandinavia (modern Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Iceland) in the eighth to eleventh centuries. I prefer to use ‘Norse’ to refer to people of Scandinavian origin, and ‘Viking’ to refer specifically to those who were engaged in raiding and piracy.


Rick said...

his willingness to wait for her to do so rather than force her seems to be due in about equal parts to a belief in his own irresistible attractiveness and a desire for a quiet life

I like this, because it sounds plausible and deals rather gracefully with one of those hopelessly un-modern situations.

Constance Brewer said...

Sounds interesting - and plausible, as Rick said. I may have to hunt this one down. :)

Meghan said...

I'm not really a huge fan of romance novels but this sounds really interesting, especially since the author took the time to do all that research!

Carla said...

Rick - yes, I liked that too, which is one reason I mentioned it. It wouldn't work for the hero to rape the heroine, but given that a slave is property he would be within his rights to do so, so you need an explanation for why he doesn't. I thought this one worked out well.

Constance - it's available on Amazon.com. If you read it, let me know what you think.

Meghan - Jen Black's two previous novels were set in 10th century Norse Scotland, so I imagine she knows the era pretty well.