‘Fin Gall,’ by James L. Nelson

Well, I actually finished this book, which is more than I can say for a lot of Viking novels I’ve started reading. And there was evidence of some research in it – it’s certainly way more historically accurate than the History Channel series, which we hates, we does.

But I’m not greatly impressed with James L. Nelson’s Fin Gall: A Novel of Viking Age Ireland.

The date is given as 852 AD. Our hero is a Norwegian named Thorgrim Night Wolf. Thorolf is reputed to be a shape-shifter, a werewolf, but the descriptions make it difficult to figure out exactly what happens when he goes out on his nocturnal excursions. Sometimes he only dreams of roaming as a wolf, but he still comes back with useful real-world information. Thorolf is the son-in-law of Jarl Ornolf the Restless, and the father of a son named Harald. They sail to Ireland for booty, and then happen onto a treasure, the Crown of the Three Kingdoms, which was being sent to one of the Irish kings. The crown is to give him symbolic dominion over the other Irish petty kings, so that they can fight the Danes, who have recently driven the Norwegians out of the Viking town of Dubh-lin.

Thereafter the characters and the plot wander about the Irish countryside, getting captured and escaping, losing the crown and a couple hostages to one another like basketball players bobbling a ball. There are some clever moments, especially in the use of ships (author Nelson is an experienced sailor on square sailed vessels), but I personally found it all a little contrived.

As I said, there’s some evidence of historical research here, but the errors are many. Two of the characters are named Snorri and Magnus, names not invented until the 10th and 11th Centuries. The author thinks Viking houses had windows (windows were extremely rare). He thinks Viking ships kept the warriors’ shields up on the rails while at sea (they didn’t). He thinks Norwegians knew nothing of burning peat (they did). In one regard author Nelson praises the Irish Christians for virtues even I, an openly sectarian author, wouldn’t claim – he thinks they weren’t superstitious. The subsequent history of Ireland makes it very clear that whatever good Christianity did for that country, it didn’t eradicate superstition.

I suppose it’s unreasonable to expect an author who hasn’t spent a lifetime in obsessive study of the Vikings, as I have, to know all these things. I expect, after all, that there are even greater compulsives out there who find as many errors in my own novels.

Nelson does do a good job in dramatizing the great irony of Viking Age Ireland – that the Irish hated each other just as much as the Scandinavians, and were as brutal – or more brutal – with each other than the Vikings were with them.

So my final judgment is fairly neutral. The writing is OK (though the author needs to learn where to use “like” and “as”). There are a couple mildly explicit sex scenes, and of course there’s lots of fighting and blood and guts. You could do worse for a Viking novel, but you could also do better. I’m not personally impressed enough to buy the second book in the series.

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