The Viking Sagas: Bracelet of Bones by Kevin Crossley-Holland
It is 1036. Halfdan is a Viking mercenary who is determined to travel to Constantinople and become one of the Viking Guard serving Empress Zoe. He promises to take his daughter, but one morning Solveig wakes up to find him gone. Setting off in her own tiny boat, she is determined to make the journey from Norway to the breathtaking city. Her boat is washed up, but Solveig is undeterred. What awaits Solveig as she continues on her summer journey across the world? She finds passage with Viking traders, witnesses the immolation of a young slave girl and learns to fight. She sees the clashes between those who praise her Norse Gods and the new Christians. In this perilous and exciting world, a young girl alone could be quickly endangered or made a slave. Will Solveig live to see her father again, and if she survives, will she remain free? A glittering novel that explores friendship and betrayal, the father-daughter relationship, the clash of religions and the journey from childhood to adulthood.
Kevin Crossley-Holland is perhaps most well known for his King Arthur trilogy (beginning with The Seeing Stone) which won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize and has been published in twenty-five different countries. He has also translated Beowulf from the Anglo-Saxon and has retold many traditional tales such as Norse Myths, and British Folk Tales. It is obvious that Kevin Crossley-Holland has quite the passion for Viking tales and Norse mythology and so his latest trilogy – The Viking Sagas – comes as no surprise.
Bracelet of Bones is the first of The Viking Sagas and is due for publication on 31st March 2011 by Quercus and it is a brilliant introduction to the trilogy. The whole novel surrounds Solveig’s journey to find her father, who is compelled to keep a promise given long ago to a friend during a war. Solveig is a brilliant representation of what it means to be a Viking woman – she is strong-willed, strong-minded and very independent. However, she is also kind and warm – she always tries to see the good in those around her. It is incredible to see a young girl leave everything she knows to embark on a journey to the land of Miklagard which seems almost mythical to Solveig. The only things she knows of Miklagard are things she has heard from other travellers.
Somehow Solveig finds passage with two ships along the way – one with two brothers, and another with an entire crew of traders. On the second ship we meet the captain Red Otter who is a brilliant character. He is very stern at times but also kind. He is wary of Solveig as a passenger on his ship but agrees to it as long as she can pay her way with her carving talents. It was very interesting to learn more about carving and runes and the beliefs that go with it.
What I loved most about Solveig’s time on the ship is her friendship with English slave, Edith. Her English town was raided by Swedes as they killed her husband and dragged her away from her children and into a life of slavery. She now belongs to Red Otter but it is obvious that he cares for her as more than a slave. Solveig is forced into this world where she is constantly learning about just how common slavery is in those days, and just how ‘normal’ it appears to be. Edith’s story is a very sad one but it is one that Solveig can relate to and the two become the very best of friends on this journey.
The other thing Solveig must learn about on her journey is religion. During this time, they encounter Christians & Muslims who all trade furs and other goods amongst each other. Solveig at times does not understand other people’s beliefs and she is very naïve towards them but she slowly comes to accept it. There is one particular passage where Solveig blames the Christians for being too compassionate – for always forgiving others when they should be seeking revenge and honouring any loved ones who have been wronged. Solveig has grown up in a particular way of life – violence has always been a part of it. Revenge, battle and wars are inherent to their beliefs. She cannot understand why the Christians would ever be so forgiving. However, through her friendship with Edith, who is also a Christian, she comes to accept their beliefs the more she thinks about it – but she will always be a Viking woman.
Kevin Crossley-Holland has undoubtedly carried out a lot of research for this novel and this is apparent throughout the whole novel. However, I as a reader, never feel like I am having facts and beliefs forced upon me just for the sake of it. They become integral to the story. There prose is littered with bit of traditional Norse verse here and there giving it a very authentic feel. However, if I could criticise one thing it would be that at times I feel there is too much verse – I’m not sure that young adults would enjoy reading it or find as much meaning in it as is intended. A lot of the Viking names are also very similar and although this is helped with a character listing at the beginning of the novel, it can be frustrating having to flick back now and then.
My main criticism of this novel has to be the ending. We spend so long on this journey with Solveig, searching for her father and feeling the suspense in waiting for the moment when they will finally come together again. And yet, the ending is over so quickly that it hardly feels worth the journey. In my opinion, everything seemed just a little too easy for Solveig. She found people willing to take her on board their ships easily enough, and had very minor obstacles throughout most of her journey. When she finally gets to Miklagard she finds her father within about two pages. I think the story would have been better if there was more getting in her way – to make Solveig struggle. All the suspense I had felt kind of fizzled out and I was left feeling quite disappointed that it was all so easy.
Final Verdict: This is a well-researched novel that leads you on a journey into a whole other world. If you’re looking for something new and want to learn about an exciting culture that is rare to find in fiction these days then this is definitely for you. It reminds me very much of Tanya Landman’s The Goldsmith’s Daughter and in some ways, of Michelle Paver’s Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series.