Reviewed by David Maclaine
Mother of Kings magnificently re-imagines the life of the famous tenth-century queen Gunnhild, wife of Norway’s king Eirik Blood-Ax, and mother of some nine children, including quite a few who claimed the title of king. Among the most remarkable women of power in a century unusually rich in powerful women, Gunnhild made her mark in a largely oral culture. Poets and storytellers amplified her story until the truth became shrouded in rich layers of legend. The novel reworks that legend, and successfully weaves together the episodes that survive in an assortment of sagas to produce an amazingly believable portrait of Gunnhild and her time. Every phase of her wide-ranging and adventurous career is brought to life: her danger-tinged childhood in the far north, her marriage to the heir to Norway’s king, their struggles against rivals, their Orkney exile, and their two failed attempts to hold the realm of York. Then the story moves to the years of widowhood that earned her the sobriquet “Kingsmother” when she held her brood of restless princes together during the struggle to reclaim Norway.
Author Poul Anderson, a legend of science fiction, was known for his deep love of medieval history. Mother of Kings, published the year of his death, was part of his turn to fiction set in the Viking Age. Scenes of magic-working that might have lain behind Gunnhild’s reputation as a witch are included, but grounded in reality; she launches her shape-shifting flights to peer across the sea by partaking of her “hallowed mushrooms.” The novel shifts focus at times to her great adversaries, including two men named Haakon, and the violent Viking and immortal poet Egil Skallagrimsson, and for a while neglects the heroine’s inner life. But the story soon comes back to her, and offers heartbreaking scenes of her farewells to a pair of lovers, to a doomed son, and to life itself. This deeply moving novel is one of the finest set in the tumultuous Viking Age. (2001, 544 pages)More about Mother of Kings at Powell's Books or Amazon.com