New Maine Times Book Review: Fin Gall

Posted Tuesday, October 1, 2013 in Culture

New Maine Times Book Review: Fin Gall
FIN GALL:  A NOVEL OF VIKING AGE IRELAND
By James L. Nelson.
Create Space Independent Publishing, 2012.
281 pages, $12.99.
ISBN 978-1-4810-2869-1.
 
Reviewed by William D. Bushnell
 
In the 8th, 9th, and 10th centuries the Vikings of Scandinavia were the most skilled mariners, craftiest traders, and feared fighters of medieval times, ranging from Ireland to Kiev with their raiding, pillaging, and trading.  Few defenders could stand up to their fierce, wild melee attacks, and fewer still survived a Viking raid.
 
FIN GALL is an outstanding novel about the Vikings in Ireland in the 9th century, written by award-winning Harpswell author James Nelson.  Fans of gritty historical fiction might think that Bernard Cornwell is the master of medieval sword and shield adventures, but then they probably haven’t read James Nelson lately.  Move over, Bernie.

Nelson has written seventeen works of non-fiction history and swashbuckling historical fiction, writing about pirates, 18th century naval warfare, the American Revolution, and the Civil War.  Now, however, he begins a new fiction series featuring Norwegian Vikings, Danes, Celts, and Irishmen fighting each other and among themselves in 852 A.D., raiding, looting, and trading for dominance of the British Isles.

Much like Cornwell’s well-crafted historical novels, Nelson spins a carefully woven and entertaining tale of medieval warfare, politics, economics, royal conspiracies, treachery and betrayal, along with all the bloody violence of those times, and with vividly colorful and historically accurate detail.

Viking warrior Thorgrim Night Wolf and his fifteen year old son, Harald, go on a Viking raiding voyage to Ireland seeking riches and excitement.  The Viking leader is Ornolf the Restless, a famous warrior, Thorgrim’s father-in-law and Harald’s grandfather.  Thorgrim is Ornolf’s second-in-command on this raid.

During the voyage across the North Sea from Norway to Ireland, Thorgrim’s longship captures an Irish nobleman’s vessel sailing on a secret mission, carrying the Crown of the Three Kingdoms.  The gold and jewel-encrusted crown is an ancient relic, supposed to inspire the Irish people to unite to expel the Norsemen and Danish invaders.

The Vikings do not know the real political value of the crown, just that it is made of gold and gems, a treasure to the raiders.  Other Irishmen and Danes, however, do know the crown’s value to Ireland, and its sudden disappearance sets off a desperate, vicious hunt for the crown and the Viking raiders.  Rival Irish kings, murderous Danes, and cold-blooded traitors all selfishly desire the crown’s power, and they will slaughter anyone to possess it.

When Thorgrim, Ornolf, and the Vikings arrive at the trading port of Dubh-Linn in Ireland, they discover it is no longer a Norwegian Viking settlement, but has recently been captured by the Danes.  The Danish leader suspects the Vikings have the crown, beginning a sly series of betrayals, captures, and tortures of his hapless guests.

Thorgrim, however, smelled a rat before they arrived at Dubh-Linn, and he no longer has the crown, but he and his men will suffer greatly before most of the Vikings can escape to the sea in their longship.  Unfortunately, several Vikings, including Harald, are left behind in Dubh-Linn to endure more brutal hospitality of their Danish host.

Meanwhile, two Irish kings with their armies descend on the Irish coast, each searching for the crown, and each beset by traitors in their midst, men who change their allegiance with each shifting wind of opportunity.  Only Thorgrim and Ornolf know where the crown is hidden, but they must be wary of traitors as well, especially an Irish slave girl who is also a spy.  And they are outnumbered by well-armed, determined enemies.

This fast-paced, graphic, and gory story is a wild swirl of battles, ambushes, murders, deceit and double-cross, capture, unspeakable torture, and miraculous escapes, revealing just how harsh and uncertain life could be in the 9th century, where courage, honor, plunder, and disputes are settled with sword, spear, and battleaxe, and no quarter is given or expected.

Incidentally, Fin Gall is Gaelic for White Strangers, or Vikings of Norwegian descent, and Nelson’s terrific storytelling and plot twists set the stage for a Fin Gall sequel.  Expect to see Thorgrim again, screaming his battle cry and lopping off heads with his sword.  Exciting stuff, indeed.

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