Fin Gall

by James L. Nelson

Reviewed by David Maclaine

The entertaining novel Fin Gall is a rare exception to the criminal neglect of the rich history of Viking-Age Ireland by writers of fiction. Author Nelson provides an easy entry into the complex story of how the eternally warring clans and petty kingdoms of Ireland found themselves fighting against, and sometimes alongside, two different groups of Scandinavians: the Norsemen the Irish called Fin Gall, “White Foreigners,” and the Danes they called the Dubh Gall, “Black Foreigners.” His tale is set in the middle of the ninth century, when the invaders had founded a number of bases, the most important being one called Dublin that would play an enduring role in the nation’s history.

A crew of Norsemen fighting a storm find themselves in possession of a treasure crucial to the Irish hopes of achieving at least a fleeting measure of unity. But the first of the novel’s many complications is the crew's discovery that the Danes now control Dublin and are embroiled in complex conspiracies with the Irish factions. The drama unfolds with a series of escapes and rescues, and with some hard fights on land and sea. There are surprise shifts in allegiance, deadly betrayals, and a taste of cross-cultural passion.

Nelson’s workmanlike style offers none of the attractions of fine literature, but he manages the kind of swift, uncluttered storytelling that has made James Patterson wealthy. He also adds a layer of genuine discernment in his treatment of the historical setting. What makes Fin Gall worth seeking out is the much-needed glimpse it offers of the collision of cultures between the Irish and the men from across the seas who first won footholds on Ireland’s shores. As a devotee of the period it is my fervent hope that Nelson's effort will inspire others to write fiction set in this fascinating phase of Irish history. (2012, 288 pages)

More about Fin Gall at

Fin Gall appears on the list of The 45 Best Historical Novels Set in the Viking Age

Other novels set in Ireland before the tenth century:

Brendan by Morgan Llywelyn (2010), about Brendan of Clonfert and his legendary sixth-century voyage in search of the Island of Paradise. See review or more info at Powell's Books

Absolution by Murder by Peter Tremayne (1994), #1 in the 22-novel Sister Fidelma mystery series, about a sleuthing nun in seventh-century Ireland. See review or more info at Powell's Books

Byzantium by Stephen R. Lawhead (1996), about a ninth-century Irish monk who travels to Byzantium with the Book of Kells. More info

Nonfiction about Viking-Age Ireland:

The Vikings in Ireland by Morgan Llywelyn (1997). More info

The Vikings in Ireland: Settlement, Trade and Urbanization by Mary A. Valante (2008). More info

Viking Kings of Britain and Ireland by Clare Downham (2007). More info


The Viking Age in Ireland

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