- Hardcover: 544 pages
- Publisher: Tor Books; First Edition edition (Sept. 27 2001)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0312874480
- ISBN-13: 978-0312874483
- Product Dimensions: 16 x 3.6 x 24.7 cm
- Shipping Weight: 794 g
- Average Customer Review: 8 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #1,860,776 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Mother of Kings Hardcover – Sep 1 2001
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From Publishers Weekly
Though marketed as fantasy, this densely written, fast-paced tale, set in Norway in the 10th century during the clash of paganism and Christianity, reads more like a grandly told history describing the life of Gunnhild, the mother of Norse kings. Its huge scope and the long time frame of events mean that the personal often gets lost in the political, but with meticulous research, Anderson (War of the Gods) brings to life the bloodthirsty Norse as they evolve into the looting, plundering Vikings of popular lore. After learning witchcraft from the Saami, Gunnhild schemes to marry a powerful Norse king, Eirik. The power behind the throne, she bears nine children, mostly boys, and ensures her husband's rule by weaving a web of spies and orchestrating a murder or two. When Eirik dies in battle, she works to further the careers of her sons, many of whom prove unworthy of leadership because of their tyranny, arrogance and stinginess. Less than engaging, global-level power struggles tend to take the place of individual conflicts, while the continually shifting point of view fragments any sustained emotional impact. Since some of the rival kings are far more appealing characters than Gunnhild's progeny, readers may find themselves rooting for them instead. This may well be what the author intended, but the result is as incongruous as the witchcraft that while interesting does little to further the plot. Norse scholars will be pleased, but those expecting another Mists of Avalon, about a strong woman at the cusp of Christianity and paganism, will be disappointed. (Sept. 27)reissue of Conan the Rebel, reviewed above.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
From Library Journal
As the daughter of a Norse chieftain, Gunhild sets her ambitions high to learn the ways of shamanic magic and to wed Eirik Blood-Ax and lead him to the throne of a newly united Norway. The late sf Grand Master and Nebula Award-winning author of The Boat of a Million Years, along with numerous other works, adds an element of myth and pagan magic to a true story set in the tenth century, as the advent of Christianity in Scandinavia spells the end of a violent and heroic way of life. Fans of historical fantasy and Norse mythology should appreciate this well-crafted tale of epic adventure. Recommended for most fantasy collections.
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Let me explain.
First, Poul Anderson did a remarkable job tracking down source material, and in sorting fact from fancy. He deserves much credit for this, as most of the surviving documentation is either spotty or nonexistent.
Second, as a fantasy, "Mother of Kings" doesn't read well.
How can Mr. Anderson have done both? Simple. Gunnhild, the titular "Mother of Kings," is not a nice person. She meets her husband young, and vows to marry him because he is handsome. This sometimes happens, and it's about the only thing that led me, the reader, into believing that Gunnhild might be worth something. But after Gunnhild gets to the throne by marriage, other than loving her husband and birthing many babies, she does a variety of things that aren't so nice. This is mostly because she wants her own way, and because she's highborn and married well, she gets it. And that means if she has to kill her magic teachers, she does it without a qualm -- and without any regrets. If she feels she has to kill to save her husband or children, ditto, even if the person/people in question have done nothing to upset, anger or threaten her or her family.
I'm sorry, but I just can't warm to a character who acts this way. And I'm unsure Gunnhild really was this bloodthirsty; she may have been a pawn, or she may have been as strong as Mr. Anderson paints her -- but not so unthinking or uncaring.
Getting back to this story, the other big problem with it is that Gunnhild's offspring are mostly not likable, either. The only likable one in the lot is Gunnhild's daughter, who Gunnhild inexplicably marries off to the most odious man she knows. Granted, it's to form and forge a contract between her family in exile and the rulers of the place they get stranded at, but still -- if she loved her daughter, why do that to her? Especially if Gunnhild is supposed to be so powerful of a shaman?
And the shamanic magic isn't really gone into; Gunnhild uses it some of the time, but most of the time she leaves it alone. The reasons for this are spotty. And later, the fact that her sons have turned to Christianity keeps her from her magic as well.
Basically, the historical elements (who did what to whom when, and why) are all there, and are masterful. But Gunnhild is cold, and her children (with the sole exception of her daughter) are worse. Her husband, Eirik Blood-Ax, is a cipher, and most of the other folks she knew or grew up with end up dead. Granted, this is probably accurate for the time frame, but it does nothing to further Gunnhild's character.
And because I disliked Gunnhild very much (when I was expecting to like her), I could not like this book. Admire it, yes. But like it? No.
Mr. Anderson wrote three far better historical books in the "Last Viking" trilogy about Harold Hardrede, and I recommend them, but not this.
I say astonishing because, despite my very great admiration for Poul Anderson, I had some misgivings about this project. Anderson was setting himself some stiff competition. Gunnhild, the "Mother of Kings," figures prominently in at least three major medieval works: Snorri Sturluson's "Heimskringla" (a history of the kings of Norway); "The Saga of Egil Skallagrimsson" (which some have thought to be Snorri's work, and which is a biography of one of his ancestors); and, more briefly, but equally memorably, in "The Saga of Burnt Njal." In all of these she figures both as a queen and as a sorceress, and in the last especially as a dangerous lover of younger men.
Each of these works has been translated into English several times. Translators of the first include William Morris, and of the second E.R. Eddison, both major fantasy writers. Those familiar with Eddison's "Worm Ouroboros" will probably remember the passage from George W. Dasent's translation of "Njal's Saga" which is read aloud in the opening pages. Three original works of genius, all of which happen to be closely associated with the development of fantasy literature in English. Not exactly minor predecessors. (Gunnhild also shows up in other sagas, including accounts of the kings of Norway by other hands, and, in a passage parallel to the account in "Njal," in the great "Laxdaela Saga," but these appearances are, I think, of lesser literary importance. The two-volume 1860 edition of Dasent's "Burnt Njal" included an essay on medieval accounts of Gunnhild, now very obsolete, but interesting to compare to Anderson; single-volume reprintings of Dasent's translation omit this, along with the rest of Dasent's elaborate introduction and appendices.)
I was not, however, completely surprised by how successful I found the book to be. Anderson had reworked Icelandic literature in the past, including Snorri's account of a later Norwegian king, Harald Hard-Counsel (in "The Last Viking" trilogy), and the legendary "Hrolf Kraki's Saga," and retold the story of the Volsungs in science fiction terms in "Time Patrolman," before turning to divine mythology (and the relatively obscure accounts of Saxo Grammaticus) in "War of the Gods." He virtually began his career by extending the legendary sagas in "The Broken Sword." In none of these cases, though, were the originals quite so intimidating. He had not lost his touch in "Mother of Kings," despite the length of the story, and the complexity of the histories and legends he was working with.
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