Juliet Marillier,
(Tor, 2003)

Juliet Marillier explores the world of the Norse berserker warriors and the Norse settlement of the Orkney Islands in Wolfskin. Part historical fiction and part fantasy, Wolfskin absorbs the reader in a sweeping saga that in some ways is as current as today's news.

The only goal young Eyvind has ever had is to be a Wolfskin like his brother Eirik, part of Jarl Magnus's elite force of berserker warriors. Wolfskins, so-called for their wolf skin pelts worn as cloaks, pledge themselves to the god Thor who calls them to rush into battle in a kind of trance. They become efficient killing machines with a relatively short lifespan. For a Wolfskin, the greatest reward is to die in battle and spend eternity at Thor's right hand.

Eyvind trains assiduously toward his goal, but when he is about 12, he accepts an awkward responsibility: Somerled, the half-brother of the Jarl's kinsman, Ulf. Somerled is clearly an unhappy, lonely boy, and Eyvind's good nature and natural compassion lead him to become blood brothers and swear a blood oath of loyalty.

Over the years, Eyvind is uneasy about the pact as Somerled displays behaviors that are less than kind or wholesome. (How do you say "sociopath" in Norse?) Even so, Eyvind remains loyal to his friend in spite of his doubts, until he and Somerled accompany Ulf and his people to his long-dreamed-of islands. The islands are already populated, but Ulf soon makes peaceful overtures and the two peoples live side by side quite happily -- for a while. Things begin to unravel, and once it starts, there is no way to stop it as Somerled begins to realize some of his own goals.

What happens when a Wolfskin no longer hears the commands of Thor but rather the call of his conscience? Eyvind grapples with this question with the aid of Nessa, niece of King Engus of the Folk and a wisewoman and priestess. In turn, Nessa must wrestle with her own dilemma: can she forgive and love a man who has been part of the destruction of all she has ever known?

Marillier appends a note that discusses her sources, acknowledging that in addition to the fantasy elements her imagination supplied events in the nearly complete absence of solid information of the society living on the islands at the time. She constructs her plot with care and her writing is just magical; nearly 500 pages flew by in just four days and detaching the book from my hands (and eyes) was an ordeal. Marillier knows just how to make a scene jump to life.

Her characters are well drawn as well. Eyvind is a particularly intriguing character. A protagonist whose lifelong ambition is to be someone who loses all consciousness of his surroundings while hacking people to bits in battle is a dubious prospect for a sympathetic character. Marillier makes him honest, uncomplicated and kind. He thinks things through before acting on them, earning himself a not-quite-deserved reputation as a simpleton, and his epiphany is wholly convincing.

His loyalty to Somerled is reminiscent of the loyalty of modern adolescents who refuse to "rat" on a friend or who are drawn into illegal or dangerous activities in the name of friendship. Somerled is all the reader suspects him to be, but at the same time, it is clear that he is also not without potential.

Marillier also has a winning character in Brother Tadhg, a monk from the Holy Island. It is rather refreshing to have an openly Christian character that is not repressive and hateful, and Brother Tadhg adds some interesting elements to the story.

The story isn't over yet; I understand that this is the beginning of a series of novels, and I look forward to reading more by this talented author.

- Rambles
written by Donna Scanlon
published 3 January 2004

Buy it from Amazon.com.