Book Review: “God’s Daughter” by Heather Day Gilbert

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This novel is Volume One in a two-volume series (Vikings of the New World Saga), and I plan to read and review the second novel, Forest Child, next.

I loved the premise, and the novel came with an excellent review from the Historical Novel Society, so I was eager to read it.

Gudrid, the main character and narrator, is a Viking woman who has traveled to the New World with her husband Finn.  Finn is the leader of an expedition that seeks Leif Erikson’s legendary Vinland, a land rich in wheat and grapes.  But the expedition has been waylaid and has settled for two years in a place they call Straumsfjord — which looks to be on the novel’s map in northern Labrador.

Gudrid, her husband, and the other settlers face the danger of the Skraelings — which the reader assumes to be Native Americans.  These Skraelings come at first to trade, but then to fight.  Gudrid’s husband eventually decides he must go south to Vinland to fill his ships with wheat and grapes for Leif Erikson, who has sponsored the expedition and who is owner of the ships.  They dare not return to Greenland and Leif without some kind of plunder.

The last third of the book takes place at Brattahlid in Greenland, Leif Erikson’s farm.  Gudrid and her husband and their party have returned with bounty from Vinland.

Throughout the novel, there is family drama and the occasional mention of Gudrid’s Christianity.  I think the author missed a good opportunity here to show the richness of the clash of religions between those who followed the old Norse gods in 1000 AD and those who had turned to the growing faith of Christianity.  But instead, this inevitable conflict is glossed over.

In addition, this reader at least grew weary of every man in the novel pining over the main character.  The main character herself grows weary of every man seeming to be in love with her.  It is irritating, unrealistic, and distracting.

God’s Daughter is an entertaining enough story, but it lacks a certain depth.  There are no great themes here, when there easily could have been with the religious aspect.  In addition, I never felt attached to the main character, rather I simply felt I was an outsider observing her life.

The details of Viking life are excellent, and the author obviously has a love of the time period.  I only wish she had given her story a bit more meat and depth.

Recommended as light summer reading or for those fascinated by the Vikings, but if you are seeking a novel to truly sweep you away to another era, this probably isn’t the one for you.

Buy it on Amazon

Book Review: “The Firebrand” by Marion Zimmer Bradley

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Fans of The Mists of Avalon will not be disappointed by Marion Zimmer Bradley’s lesser-known novel about the Trojan War, The Firebrand.  With the priestess and prophetess Kassandra as her main character, Bradley paints a striking picture of life in Troy during the Greek siege.  Kassandra is much maligned by her royal family for her prophecies of doom, and is seen as an outsider despite being a princess, daughter of King Priam.  And despite her role as priestess to the Sun God Apollo, she is haunted by doubts about the powers and motives — and even the very existence — of the gods and goddesses.

Through Kassandra’s eyes, we see the great heroes of The Iliad not as Homer revealed them, but as perhaps a sister would have seen them.  Hector is bold and something of a bully, as an older brother might be.  Paris is arrogant and selfish, as a man who makes off with another man’s wife might be.  There are echoes of The Mists of Avalon here; the women – Helen, Andromache, and Kassandra — take the primary roles, while the men are the weaker characters.

Achilles, one of the greatest heroes of Western literature, is seen in the novel for what he probably would have actually have been – a sociopath and a brute.  While Homer seems to delight in Achilles’s quest for glory on the battlefield, Bradley shows us the atrocities the man committed for what they truly would have been – the actions of a man with no conscience or regard for human decency.

With Kassandra’s role as a priestess, religion plays a major role in the novel.  As with The Mist of Avalon, Bradley pays a great deal of heed to “the goddess” figure in her work.  Through several of her characters, including the Amazon warrior queen and the queen of the city of Colchis, she asserts that the Goddess came before the Gods and that women ruled before men.  This is Bradley’s signature theme, and plays out a bit more heavy-handedly in Firebrand than it does in The Mists of Avalon.

The novel is incredibly well researched, drawing on not only The Iliad, but The Odyssey, The Orestia, The Trojan Women, The Aeneid, and much of traditional Greek mythology, as well.  Fans of Greek history and mythology as well as Bradley’s other work will find much to enjoy in The Firebrand.

Buy it at Amazon

Gruoch: The Real Lady MacBeth

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Ah, Shakespeare. That wondrous weaver of sonnets and timeless plays. In MacBeth, he wrote: “What’s done cannot be undone.” And perhaps he was right. Perhaps not.

Shakespeare was a genius, this I dare not dispute, but he was also a man who, unfortunately, did some damage with his words – damage to historical figures who would otherwise have been looked upon with greater sympathy by later generations were it not for the Bard taking creative license with their lives.

I speak of MacBeth and of his wife and queen, Gruoch.

Gruoch lived from approximately 1015 to 1060, deep within the medieval period – an era traditionally seen as a time of darkness and shadow in European history, when accuracy is a fleeting, ethereal thing and true facts are sometimes hard to come by.

But some things we do know.

According to the British Peerage, Gruoch mi Boedhe was born sometime around 1015 AD. She was the daughter of Boedhe mac Cinaed. Before marrying Mac Bethad mac Findlaích (MacBeth), she first wed his cousin, Gille Coemgain Macrory, Earl of Moray. After the death of her first husband, she married Macbeth, King of Scotland, son of Findlaech MacRory, Mormaer of Moray and Donalda of Alba, in 1032.

Shakespeare wrote his play sometime between 1603 and 1607. He wrote the play specifically for King James I, the newly reigning king who was a great supporter of the theater. And one can only suppose that then, as now, a story of ambition, betrayal, deceit, and murder would be far more fascinating and entertaining than a tale of a devout Christian king who ruled generally peaceably for seventeen years with his loyal wife at his side.

The historical facts as we know them are that MacBeth killed Duncan in battle — an honorable way to be killed at the time — and a perfectly reasonable way for MacBeth to rise to power as king given the societal norms of the medieval era. This is a far cry from Shakespeare’s version, in which Duncan is murdered ruthlessly in his home, with MacBeth feeling remorse over the killing later.

As for the historical Lady Gruoch, when Macbeth became king after the death of Duncan, he claimed the throne of Scotland in both his and his wife’s name. This was utterly unheard of for the times.  And Lady Gruoch became the first queen ever recorded in Scottish history.

As king, Macbeth brought peace to Scotland during a time of violent upheaval. He was a popular ruler and the first Scottish king recorded to have made a pilgrimage to Rome. During his reign, Macbeth gave to the poor, imposed order, and supported Christianity throughout Scotland. He lasted seventeen years as king, when the average Scottish king of the time barely lasted ten. All the while, Queen Gruoch ruled at his side.

Queen Gruoch is named in charters endowing the Culdee monastery at Loch Leven, the home to an aesthetic group of monks devoted to community and to living in the ways of the Christian faith.

During MacBeth’s reign, Gruoch wielded power and influence alongside him as his queen. Their reign was rich enough that MacBeth was said to have “scattered silver like seeds” to the poor.

A royal princess by birth, Gruoch was already the mother of a son, Lulach, when she married MacBeth, and became the mother of the new king when Lulach ascended the throne of Scotland after MacBeth’s death.

According to Scottish historian, broadcaster, and author of MacBeth: A True Story, Fiona Watson:

“Medieval women may be more or less silent to us, but I believe this doubly royal woman played an active role in both in her marriage and in public life generally. Remember, she made a political match with Macbeth: what she and her son needed was a strong protector. In the circumstances, Macbeth fitted the bill perfectly.”

So rid yourself of the Shakespearean concept that Queen Gruoch was a nagging, manipulative, and guilt-ridden woman driven to suicide by her own scheming. The true Gruoch, the woman we should all remember, was a noble queen who ruled at her husband’s side for seventeen years, raised a son to be a king of Scotland, gave to the poor, and outlived her husband by many years.

In the end, she became innocent fodder for the imagination of one of the world’s greatest writers, and as a result, the world has remembered a nefarious Lady MacBeth through literature for more than four centuries.

Perhaps it is time for history to set things right.

 

Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more.

          – MacBeth, Act V, Scene V

 

Fiona Watson’s non-fiction book on the life of MacBeth, MacBeth: A True Story.

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Read an interview with Fiona Watson at the scotsman.com.