The Glass Woman by Caroline Lea

With its cold Icelandic setting, dark atmosphere and shades of classic Gothic novels, this would have been an ideal winter read, but for me it was a spring one, finished towards the end of April – and now here I am writing about it in June, at the beginning of summer. An indication of how far behind I am with everything, but I know I will catch up eventually!

Anyway, The Glass Woman opens in November 1686 with a body rising to the surface of the frozen sea just off the coast of Iceland. Amongst the crowd who gather to watch and to try to pull the body from the water is one man who knows more than he’s willing to admit. A man who ‘remembers carrying the heavy body in the winding sheet, weighted with stones; remembers his wound paining him as they scraped through the snow and smashed the ice with long staves before sliding the body in’.

We then go back a few months to the August of that year, when Rósa comes to live in the village of Stykkishólmur with her new husband, Jón. She knows very little about Jón but he had promised to see that her ailing mother was cared for if she married him, so she felt she had to accept his proposal. Rósa finds it difficult to settle into her new life; she misses her mother and her childhood friend Páll and her husband is proving to be disappointingly cold and distant. The other women of the village seem to be reluctant to befriend Rósa and she soon discovers that this is because there is some sort of mystery surrounding the death of Jón’s first wife, Anna.

Alone and isolated in Jón’s croft, Rósa listens to strange noises coming from the loft above but she is unable to investigate because her husband keeps the loft door locked and has forbidden her to try to enter. He expects her to be meek and obedient, as symbolised by the small glass woman he gave her as a wedding present, but Rósa has other ideas. She has questions that must be answered. Who or what has been hidden away in that secret locked room? What really happened to Anna? And what sort of man has she married?

The Glass Woman is a beautifully written novel; Iceland is a setting I always find atmospheric and interesting and in this book it is more than just a setting – the landscape itself plays a part in the development of the story. I liked Rósa and understood how difficult the situation was that she found herself in, unable to trust her husband yet doing her best to make the marriage work, while suspecting that he may have done something terrible and that she herself could be in danger.

Most of the novel is written from Rósa’s point of view, but there are also some chapters narrated by another character and set at a slightly earlier time. Although this did help to fill in some of the gaps in Rósa’s knowledge, I thought it was done in a way that confused things rather than clarified them. The structure seemed to slow the story down and I didn’t find myself becoming fully absorbed until near the end of the book when the various threads began to come together and the truth started to emerge.

Overall, though, I did enjoy reading The Glass Woman. Some of the plot elements in the first half of the book made me think of Jane Eyre and others of Rebecca, but as the story moved forward I knew it wasn’t going to be exactly like either of those other novels and that Caroline Lea had written something quite different.

Thanks to the publisher Michael Joseph for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Smile of the Wolf by Tim Leach

This is Tim Leach’s third novel and although I haven’t read his first two, which are both about King Croesus of Lydia, I have heard good things about them. His new book, Smile of the Wolf, has a completely different setting but sounded equally fascinating, so I was pleased to have an opportunity to read it as part of a blog tour arranged by the publisher Head of Zeus.

Smile of the Wolf takes us to 10th century Iceland, where a tale of revenge and betrayal, loyalty and friendship is played out across a cold, harsh, beautiful landscape. At the centre of the tale, which is inspired by the Icelandic Sagas, are Gunnar, a warrior and farmer, and his friend, the travelling poet – or skald – Kjaran. Kjaran has no lands of his own but moves from household to household providing songs and stories in exchange for the hospitality of his hosts. It is while spending the winter with Gunnar and his family that rumours begin to circulate of a ghost that wanders in the night. Gunnar and Kjaran set out to hunt down the ghost – but when a misunderstanding leads to a man being killed, a deadly feud is set in motion.

This is a beautifully written novel, which is very appropriate as our narrator is Kjaran the poet, a man whose livelihood depends on his skill with language. Tim Leach uses just the right words and phrases to transport me to another time and place and to help me understand the people who lived there.

In the long winter, even the wealthiest of Icelanders curses the day that their ancestors came to this land. They forget the dream of the people, that dream of a world without kings, and know only that they live in a dark, lonesome place. But when the sun begins to ride higher in the sky and the snow begins to quicken and thaw, it is an easy land to love. The dream grows strong once more, for we are a stubborn people.

Iceland is a country with a very strong tradition of storytelling and the author has drawn on some of the stories told in the Sagas – stories of ghosts and feuds and friendships which take place in a land of snow and ice. We also learn a lot about Icelandic culture and customs, systems of law and punishment, and the conflict between Christianity and the older beliefs.

The relationship between Kjaran and Gunnar is well drawn, showing their very different personalities and the very different ways in which they react to the same situations. Gunnar prefers to settle disputes with spears and shields, while the more cautious Kjaran takes the time to look for other solutions. Although the two main characters – and most of the characters on the other side of the feud – are men, there are also some women who have a big part to play in the novel. These include Vigdis, whose schemes cause the feud to spiral out of control and last much longer than it needs to, and Sigrid, the woman Kjaran hopes to marry.

The combination of interesting characters, atmospheric setting and poetic writing make this a great read – both moving and gripping. It has left me determined to read The Last King of Lydia and its sequel as soon as I can.

Thank you to Head of Zeus for providing a copy of this novel for review.

For more stops on the tour, please see the banner below.

The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson

This is a beautiful, moving novel based on a little known historical event: the 1627 raid by Barbary pirates on Iceland’s Westman Islands. Around four hundred Icelanders were taken in captivity to Algiers to be sold at the slave markets, among them the priest Ólafur Egilsson, his pregnant wife Ásta Thórsteinsdottir, and two of their children. We know from historical records that Ólafur was released and sent to Denmark to petition the Danish king (Iceland’s ruler in those days) in the hope that he would provide the ransom to free his subjects. His story was preserved in a memoir describing his capture and the voyage there and back, but the story of Ásta, who was not allowed to accompany him on the journey home, has been lost to history.

In The Sealwoman’s Gift, Sally Magnusson has given a voice to Ásta, a woman who, like so many others in centuries gone by, has been ignored and forgotten by history. As we know little or nothing about what happened to Ásta and the other women and children after their arrival on the shores of Algeria, this gives the author the freedom to create an interesting, realistic and believable story to fill in the gaps. She writes with sensitivity and understanding as she describes Ásta’s pain at being separated from her husband and children, her changing feelings for the man who buys her – Ali Pitterling Cilleby – and the agonising decision she eventually has to make.

There’s a lot for Ásta to adjust to in her new life; Algeria and Iceland couldn’t be more different, with very different climates, customs, foods, languages and religions. The religious difference is one of the most difficult for Ásta to accept – as the wife of a Lutheran minister, the possibility of her children having to convert to Islam is not easy for her to come to terms with. We also follow Ólafur on his return to Heimaey in the Westman Islands and see both the short-term and long-term effects the raids have had on the community. With such a small population to begin with, the loss of several hundred of their people has a big impact; it seems that almost everyone has lost a husband or wife, a child or a parent or a friend.

Iceland has a strong tradition of storytelling and some of these myths, legends and sagas are woven into the novel as Ásta finds some solace in remembering the stories of her homeland and narrating them to her master and his wives. This is another aspect of the book that I liked; you can learn a lot about a country from its stories and its folklore.

Sally Magnusson (who is the daughter of the television presenter Magnus Magnusson) has previously written several non-fiction books, but this seems to be her first novel. I liked her writing, apart from the fact that she chose to write in the present tense. I’m really not a fan of present tense and in this case I found it distracting and distancing, which I’m sure is not what the author intended. It’s down to personal taste, I suppose – you either have a problem with it or you don’t. I also thought that, while Ásta, Ólafur and the other Icelandic people are strong, interesting characters, the characters they meet in Algiers feel less well developed. If I’d had a stronger feeling for Cilleby, for example, as a person, I think I would have found the later stages of the story even more emotional.

These are just small criticisms and, as I’ve said, are probably just due to my tastes as a reader rather than the book itself, which is getting great reviews and really is a fascinating read.

Thanks to Two Roads for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Burial Rites Based on a true story, Burial Rites is a fictional account of the final weeks in the life of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland.

It’s 1829 and Agnes – along with two other people – has been found guilty of murdering her lover, Natan Ketilsson. Due to the lack of prisons in the north of Iceland, Agnes has been sent to the farm of District Officer Jón Jónsson where she will await the day of her beheading. Understandably, Jón’s wife and daughters are nervous and angry about having a convicted murderer coming to stay with them, but as they have no choice in the matter they must find a way to deal with their fear and distrust.

Agnes is visited at the farm by Assistant Reverend Thorvárdur Jónsson (known as Tóti), the young priest she has chosen to act as her confidant and spiritual adviser. At first Tóti is surprised to have been given this task and isn’t sure how he can help Agnes, but he soon discovers that all she needs is someone to talk to about her past and about the events leading up to the night of the murder. As Tóti and the Jónsson family listen, the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir begins to unfold.

It seemed that everyone was reading Burial Rites a while ago, especially when it was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction earlier in the year. Despite the good reviews, it was not a book that sounded very appealing to me and I wasn’t planning to read it, but when I noticed it in the library I thought I would give it a try. Now that I’ve read it, I can understand why it has been so successful – it’s beautifully written, the setting is stunning and the atmosphere is haunting – and I did enjoy it, though maybe not as much as other people have.

I loved the Icelandic setting. This is not a story that would have worked had it been set in any other time or place. Nineteenth century Iceland, its landscape, its weather and its small rural communities are as important to the novel as the characters and the plot. The author does a great job of portraying both the isolation of farms and crofts such as Jón Jónsson’s at Kornsá or Natan’s at Illugastadir and the claustrophobia of daily life (entire families lived and slept in one room, known as the badstofa). The book includes extras such as a map and pronunciation guide for readers who, like me, know very little about Iceland.

While Agnes tells part of her story herself in first person, other sections of the novel are told from other perspectives and these are important in helping us to understand the perceptions people have of Agnes. It’s not surprising that Jón’s wife, Margrét, and daughters, Steina and Lauga, react with fear and suspicion at first, but as they learn more about Agnes they begin to adjust the way they think about her. Tóti’s feelings also change over the course of the novel, and so does the reader’s: at the beginning of the book we know nothing about Agnes and have no idea whether she is really guilty or not; by the end, we are left with a sense of sadness and injustice, especially on learning that the other woman accused of the murder (who happens to be younger and prettier) is given the opportunity to appeal while Agnes isn’t.

Of course, the account the fictional Agnes gives of her life and the circumstances of Natan’s murder is not necessarily what happened in real life and we don’t know whether Iceland’s last execution really was a miscarriage of justice or not. Burial Rites is a combination of fact and fiction, the result of both careful research and the author’s imagination. I thought it was interesting that in her author’s note, Hannah Kent says that she doesn’t think of Agnes Magnúsdóttir as a feminist heroine or even a heroine at all; just a ‘human who does not want to die, and no more’. But whatever else Agnes was, she was a character I cared about and I’m pleased to have had the chance to read her story.

To Lie with Lions by Dorothy Dunnett

To Lie with Lions To Lie with Lions is the sixth volume in the House of Niccolò series and although I loved it, this is not the place to start if you’re new to Niccolò. To be able to fully appreciate this book, you really need to have read the series from the beginning and, in particular, you need to read the fifth book, The Unicorn Hunt, before this one. To Lie with Lions picks up a lot of the threads from The Unicorn Hunt and in some ways I thought they almost felt like two halves of the same novel, so please be aware that if you haven’t read all of the previous five books yet you will encounter spoilers in the rest of this post.

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In To Lie with Lions, Nicholas de Fleury returns to Scotland with his wife, Gelis, and son, Jodi. On the surface it may appear that he and Gelis have been reconciled; in reality, the mysterious ‘game’ they are playing is about to enter its final stages. Meanwhile, as Nicholas continues to make himself indispensable to the young King James III of Scotland and his court, he also becomes embroiled in the conflict in Europe between the King of France and the Duke of Burgundy – but which, if either, is he really working for?

Previous books have dealt with the trade of alum, silks, sugar, gold and slaves; this book looks at the trade of another commodity: stockfish (dried, unsalted fish). To find these supplies of fish, Nicholas must embark on a sea voyage to Ultima Thule – Iceland and the Westmann Islands. As usual, he has more than one reason for this trip, and to make things even more interesting, the Bank of Niccolò’s rivals, the Vatachino and Anselm Adorne, as well as Paúel Benecke of the Hanseatic League, are also on their way to Iceland. There were a lot of dramatic scenes and set pieces in this book – a walk through the ducal château of Hesdin where traps and practical jokes lie around every corner; a game of Florentine football on the castle walls in Edinburgh; skating on the frozen Nor’ Loch – but it was this excursion to Iceland in the middle of the novel that I found the most memorable. There’s some beautiful descriptive writing in this section of the book, bringing to life all of Iceland’s distinctive natural features – the glaciers, geysers, hot springs and volcanoes – and the wildlife – the eagles, ‘white bears’ and ptarmigans. The descriptions of the volcanic eruptions are stunning and made me think how much more frightening and awe-inspiring such phenomena must have been in Nicholas’s time.

“The Mouth of Hell opened when they were a long way out to sea, and the glacier over Katla lifted its city of ice into the sky…Now, you could no longer diminish what was happening by translating it into human dimensions. This was not a play. This was the hurling into the sky of thousand-ton blocks of ice, glinting and roseate in the thundering night. This was the discharge of millions of gallons of boiling water, plunging down from the mountain in a wild dashing glitter, outrunning the billows of its own pink-flushed steam.”

As with all of Dunnett’s novels, there are things that seem confusing at the beginning but have taken on new meaning by the end of the book. Among other things, we finally discover, after endless hints about ‘the game’ Nicholas and Gelis were playing, what it was all about and what each of them was hoping to achieve; we learn why Godscalc had been so determined to keep Nicholas from returning to Scotland; and the reason for Nicholas’s reaction to the Nativity Play he had worked so hard on and received so much praise for. After disliking Nicholas throughout most of The Unicorn Hunt, I found him more likeable again in this book, rather like Tobie, who returns to Nicholas’s side filled with hope that perhaps he is not beyond redemption after all. Tobie, with his ever-changing opinion of Nicholas, is someone I can definitely identify with! We do see some evidence of Nicholas’s warmer, more human side again in the relationships he forms with Kathi Sersanders and Robin of Berecrofts (two of my favourite characters) in Iceland and in the effort he makes to bond with Jodi.

It seems, though, that Nicholas often gets so carried away with the intricacies of his elaborate machinations that he forgets, or ignores, the fact that his schemes are affecting real people’s lives. And after feeling so much more sympathetic towards him during this book than I did during the last one, the revelations in the final chapters caused me, like many of his friends and colleagues, to become disillusioned with him again. Still, I was pleased that the contest between Nicholas and Gelis had finally come to an end and I was left with the feeling that one episode is over and a new one is about to begin.