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An Excellent History of Skalds and Vikings - an Editorial Review of "The Ring Breaker"



Book Blurb:


Loyalty has a price the children pay

In the twilight of the old gods, when the last Vikings rule the seas, two cursed orphans meet on an Orkney beach and their fates collide.


Stripped of honour, facing bleak loneliness ahead, Skarfr and Hlif forge an unbreakable bond as they come of age in the savage Viking culture of blood debts and vengeance. To be accepted as adults, Skarfr must prove himself a warrior and Hlif must learn to use women’s weapons. Can they clear their names and choose their destiny? Or are they doomed by their fathers’ acts?


The award-winning author of The Troubadours Quartet returns to the 12th century, with skalds instead of troubadours and Viking warriors instead of crusaders. Get ready for authentic medieval adventures steeped in poetry, politics and passion. Perfect for fans of Bernard Cornwell Matthew Harffy and Madeline Miller.



Author Bio:



Jean Gill is an award-winning Welsh writer and photographer living in the south of France with two scruffy dogs, a beehive named 'Endeavour', a Nikon D750 and a man. For many years, she taught English and was the first woman to be a secondary headteacher in Wales. She is mother or stepmother to five children so life was hectic. Join Jean's special readers' group at www.jeangill.com for private news and exclusive offers.


Editorial Review:


He was a sickly baby so his father took him to the beach and left him on the wrack-strewn pebbles for time and tide to claim a life not meant to be.

When a book begins with the most chilling and thought-provoking first line such as the one above, you know you are in for a treat. This book in no way disappoints from the first line to the last, and while very immersive into ancient Viking history and customs, the story glided from one page to another like a well-crafted longboat cutting through the turbulent waters of the North Sea.


He must learn by heart the tales of gods, giants and heroes that would make him welcome at any lord's hearth and earn him good coin. Maybe one day the Jarl would break his ring and give a silver piece to Skarfr for his work. If he was second-rate as a skald, he could always be first-rate as a praise-singer. That was often a more remunerative occupation.


The baby introduced at the outset, a boy named Skarfr, who gets his name after being cared for by a group of cormorants, then found by his mother and taken back home, thus setting the stage for how those curious birds play a part in the rest of his life. After both his parents die, he is fostered by a skald, a storyteller poet, who takes over his property and trains the boy to follow in his footsteps. But life changes things when he meets Hlif, the young ward of Rognvald, the Jarl of Orkney (also a poet), as well as the first time he sees Inge Asleifsdottir, the sister of Sweyn Asleifsson (a sea-rover extraordinaire) on an Orkney beach. Hlif and Skarfr's relationship is a mixture of repelling and attracting from the very beginning, especially since Hlif claims she is cursed, and must remain unmarried and childless since she is the daughter of the man who killed Jarl Magnus, the uncle (and saint) of Rognvald. When Skarfr follows Botolf to entertain guests at Rognvald's Bu (longhouse) at the marriage of Inge and Lord Thorbjorn, his life changes again as he becomes acquainted with the different people who will affect the rest of his life. Thorbjorn is a brute, a true Viking warrior, and Skarfr's first encounter with him during the banquet gives the boy an idea of how brutish he is; and later, Skarfr is bullied by the man after his failed attempt to recite a story during the event, and to pay for intruding upon something he should have never seen.


Yet, he could not rid his head of the words he could not speak without murdering them. He could hear the music of verse like the rise and fall of Harald's wooden longship on a pretend sea. He could feel in his blood the connection between kennings and the core of all things, on the loom of history where brave deeds glittered in gold thread. He liked the phrase, memorised it in silence. So be it, he told himself. He would practise all he'd learned and enjoy his words, in silence. Never embarrass himself and others again. Rognvald was wrong, believing all men to be like himself, seeing failure only as a stepping stone to success. Skarfr could learn from Rognvald but he could not be like him. You know who you want to be.


But step by step, Skarfr's star rises, and before long, and with some cunning, he manages to gain favor not only with the Jarl, but with Thorbjorn, himself; even becoming employed by the Jarl (after Hlif's assistance). In the meantime, he grows into manhood, and his relationship with Hlif continues to vacillate while the political chaos rises and falls across the land, all the way to Skotland. When he discovers Hlif's skill at predicting future events through dreams, he uses her skill to ingratiate himself into Thorbjorn's graces (by accident and to protect himself), and soon he is learning warrior skills from the man (much to Hlif's dismay). From the sidelines, he watches the ins-and-outs of how the Jarl rules, of his training young Harald, the second Jarl, and the ways a woman manipulates a man for her own revenge and power as shown in the relationship between Inge and Thorbjorn.


The constant conflicts between Thorbjorn and Sweyn, the competition for favor and for power, reaches a climax when Sweyn steals the majority of the booty after a Viking raid, in payment for Thorbjorn's murder of two of Sweyn's men; which in turn, was payment for the murder of Thorbjorn's grandmother, a notorious witch, and so on. Revenge, back and forth, back and forth... yet Jarl Rognvald and his new Christian faith is the balance which continues to bring all to peace (while he tolerates the 'old ways' and the 'old gods'). In the midst of this is young Skarfr who takes all of this in, and who learns to wield his skald-skills in silence (in his head) as a vow in hopes that St. Magnus will release the curse from Hlif. Yet, after Sweyn's thievery, Thorbjorn seeks to take out his revenge on Inge, so Skarfr (now a man) comes up with a plan to help Inge escape, and she returns to her homeland but not before she gifts Skarfr with a very special gift, one he has longed for since his first meeting with her. Again, upon his return and confession, he must win Hlif back to friendship, yet the secret of the escape bonds them in a very special way. Now that Thorbjorn is 'free', the brute thinks to take out his lust on Hlif but Skarfr again comes to the rescue, and tells Jarl Rognvald... who, in turn, demands that he stay away from her.

But Skarfr and Hlif fall in love, meeting always in secret, and share their 'handfasting' vows only to each other at the ring of stones, afraid that Jarl Rognvald's next pilgrimage to Jerusalem will part them for years. In the end, Skarfr truly comes into his own as a man and a skald after an incident deep in the snowy North country, and a vision comes to life with the confines of a tomb, brings him even closer to Hlif and to his own destiny, as well as with the cormorant who saved his life as a babe.


That's what all of his life felt like, merely playing a role, confiding in nobody, composing poetry in secret. He would walk to the old stone circle at Steinnesvatn or further away to the ring of stones at Brogar, giant watchers brooding over the loch until Ragnarok. He would play mournful tunes on his pipe, hail the cormorant when she flew over or perched on a rock, watching over him. She gave him neither encouragement nor warning but she was there.


This book, at the root, is a story of the search for love and acceptance, of two young people coming of age in the stark and savage Viking world; a time when blood paid with blood, and vengeance pumped through the veins of both men and women. Both Skarfr and Hlif learn to use their own weapons, some of steel and some of wiles, in order to survive, and both try to break free from the curse laid upon their shoulders, that of 'the sins of the fathers paid by the sons'. The blurb for this book says this is a mixture of poetry, politics, and passion, and this is a very fitting description; yet not in just a typical run-of-the-mill Viking story. This is told in quite an outstanding way with deep resonating emotion, well-developed characters, full-bodied narrative and world-building, and has tones of Follett's The Pillars of the Earth, as well as Cornwell's Saxon Tales. This book is unstoppable and one which impels you to finish without let-up. Very rich in history and customs, and an overall stunning read.


*****


“The Ring Breaker” by Jean Gill receives five stars and the “Highly Recommended” award of excellence from The Historical Fiction Company


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