Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings by Neil Price
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is a scholastic reference book, so expect it to read accordingly; that said, I found it to be fairly interesting and engrossing as it reinforced what I already knew and added substantially to it. While the scholarship within this book is fairly evident, it remains accessible to the 'layman' with how it is presented to the reader. This means that readers who have more experience with some of the historical disciplines combined by the author may find themselves skimming over significant parts of the book while the author brings the rest of us up to speed. It does drag considerably once it gets into the various Viking raids (I am sure there is something I missed in all that while skimming).
Most of the literature about the Vikings has focused What they did and not Why they did it. This book attempts to rectify that oversight. It begins by exploring the actual etymology of the term Viking before trying to identify exactly who the Vikings were and highlight some of the accretions that get us to how to see Vikings today. Rather than defining Vikings by the encounters they had with more than 50 peoples, this book tries to example the similarities within Vikings culture using a few interactions as examples of the whole. But first ... let's talk about what we know and how we know it (and of course the limitations of how we know it). Probably the most significant limitation of any Viking Era research is the scarcity of written material from within its predominately oral culture (nearly all of the written histories are from "foreign contemporaries" who wrote about them).
To get an idea of the Viking mind, the other begins with an exploration of Nordic Cosmology/Mythology. As something of a Nordophile, I already knew most of this material and found it to be clearly stated and inline with my expectations after skimming through most of it. The difference here is the author's more pragmatic approach to these myths that tries to identify how these myths are linked aspects of ordinary Viking life instead of a foundation for religious life (which was also inline with my expectations). In other words, he tries ot make distinction between appearance/perception and reality. What I found most helpful here was the author's ability to combine, explain and contrast different aspects of Viking Era beliefs.
After this, the author explores what set the Vikings in motion. Citing various environmental and political changes that severely impact the North around the 6th century, we find wide spread evidence of a population under stress; with a reminder that populations under stress usually start migrating elsewhere (in this case, potentially accompanied by former Roman auxiliaries; or perhaps simply Roman armed former allies). [Fimbul]Winter is coming ... and Scandinavian communities needed to reinvent themselves to survive, and what emerged was a very different society.
One aspect explored where I learned quite a lot was the intersection of law, magic and sexuality. I am sure some of the material is controversial, but it did explain a number of concepts that have puzzled me before ... such as the whole idea of women's magic (seithr) and why men were not allowed to practice it. Just as important, the author highlights several instances of Viking behavior (typically around funerary practices) for which we may never have a satisfactory explanation. In the end, I came away with a better understanding of the Viking Age.
I was given this free advance reader copy (ARC) ebook at my request and have voluntarily left this review.
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My Ratings Explained ...
- [ ***** ] Amazing Read - Perfect story, exciting, engrossing, well developed complex characters, solid plot with few to no holes, descriptive environments and place settings, great mystery elements, realistic dialogue, believable reactions and behaviors; a favorite that I can re-read many times.
- [ **** ] Great Read - Highly entertaining and enjoyable, exciting storyline, well developed characters and settings, a few discrepancies but nothing that can’t be overlooked. Some aspect of the story was new/refreshing to me and/or intriguing. Recommended for everyone.
- [ *** ] Good Read - Solid story with a 'good' ending, or has some other redeeming feature. Limited character development and/or over reliance on tropes. Noticeable discrepancies in world building and/or dialog/behavior that were distracting. I connected enough with the characters/world to read the entire series. Most of the books I read for fun are here. Recommended for fans of the genre.
- [ ** ] Okay Read - Suitable for a brief, afternoon escape … flat or shallow characters with little to no development. Over the top character dialog and/or behavior. Poor world building with significant issues and/or mistakes indicating poor research. Excessive use of trivial detail, info dumps and/or pontification. Any issues with the story/characters are offset by some other aspect that I enjoyed. Not very memorable. May only appeal to a niche group of readers. Recommended for some (YMMV).
- [ * ] Bad Read - Awkward and/or confusing writing style. Poor world building and/or unbelievable (or unlikeable) characters. Victimization, gaslighting, blatant abuse, unnecessary violence, child endangerment, or any other highly objectionable behaviors by Main characters. I didn't connect with the story at all; significant aspects of this story irritated me enough that I struggled to finished it. Series was abandoned. Not recommended.