The Witches' Kitchen
by Cecelia Holland
Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach
Triumphant and tragic, The Witches' Kitchen follows The Soul Thief, first of the six-novel (as of 2010) "Corban Loosestrife" series. In The Witches' Kitchen, the Irish-born Corban is exiled from Denmark, living with his wife and family on a small island off the coast of America (some years before Leif Erikson discovers and names Vinland). His son Conn and nephew Raef are boys on the brink of manhood. When circumstances beyond Corban's control force him reluctantly back to Denmark, heartache and help from the spirit world await. The fey Raef's gift for sensing portent and direction in ocean currents is both frightening and useful. Straightforward Conn lusts to prove himself in battle. Both come of age amid the Scandinavian rebellion against King Harald Bluetooth in 987.
The series departs from Holland's usual style by incorporating fantasy elements. In The Witches' Kitchen, one character shapeshifts into a hawk; more than one continue after death to communicate with and frighten the living. At the same time, the novel remains psychologically astute and grounded in authentic historical detail. In a time of transition between Viking paganism and aggressive Christianizing, Corban aligns himself with a paganism that blends his Irish heritage with native American influences. He tells a bishop, "You Christians pick god out of the world and throw it in a little ball into the sky, out of your way, so you can do what you like. This you think makes you superior." Descriptive passages pull readers into the setting: "The black muck under the spiky marsh grass was studded with pieces of driftwood, broken shells, pieces of dead crabs, dirty gull feathers."
Readers can easily enjoy the novel as a standalone, but as a sequel it does contain spoilers for The Soul Thief. Readers who plan to read the entire series will probably want to read them in order. (2004; 384 pages)
More about The Witches' Kitchen at Powell's Books, Amazon.com or The Book Depository
The Witches' Kitchen appears on the list of The 45 Best Historical Novels Set in the Viking Age
Other novels based on Scandinavian sagas:
Hrolf Kraki's Saga by Poul Anderson (1973), based on the medieval Norse saga of Hrolf Kraki. More info
The Greenlanders by Jane Smiley, (1988), about a family in the Norse colony in Greenland during its decline. More info
Odinn's Child by Tim Severin (2005), set in eleventh century Viking Greenland; #1 in a trilogy. More info
Nonfiction about early Scandinavia:
Norse Warfare: The Unconventional Battle Strategies of the Ancient Vikings by Martina Sprague (2007). More info
The Viking World by James Graham-Campbell (1994). More info
Barbarian Rites: The Spiritual World of the Vikings and the Germanic Tribes by Hans Peter Hasenfratz (2011). More info
King Harald Bluetooth, a short biographical sketch with excellent photographs of the runestones he erected.
Back to Medieval Scandinavia and the Vikings
Back to Directory of Book Reviews