- Ephraim Schwartz
The Thomas Holt who wrote Meadowland is the same person as the Tom Holt whose humorous mythical books, like Who's Afraid of Beowulf and Expecting Someone Taller, I've praised before in this space.
The same wit is in evidence in Meadowland, his 2005 novel about the Viking discovery of America, but all in all it's a very different kind of book.
The narrator is John Stetathus, a eunuch and accountant in the service of the emperor of Constantinople in the year 1036. He is commanded to accompany a shipment of gold through Greece to Sicily, along with three members of the emperor's personal army, the famous Varangian Guard, made up mostly of Norsemen. One of the guards is a large and rather dull young man called Harald Sigurdson, whom Viking buffs will immediately recognize as the future King Harald Hardrada of Norway. The other two are Kari and Eyvind, a pair of elderly Icelanders.
When their cart breaks down and they have to wait for repairs, Kari and Eyvind take it in turns to tell John the story of their time in Greenland, during which they participated in all four of the voyages to “Meadowland,” (Vinland) that we know from the sagas. (The choice of the name “Meadowland” was one of the first problems I had with this story. There's a theory, which used to be popular among scholars, that instead of Vínland [spelled with an accented i, meaning Wineland], the name used in the sagas, Leif had originally named the new country Vinland [Meadowland], and that subsequent retellings had added the wine element through a misunderstanding, and to entertain the audience. There may be a few scholars who still hold that view, but they're in the minority. Linguists have noted—compellingly, I think—that the unaccented word vin meaning “grassland” was obsolete by Leif's day. If he'd wanted to call the place “Meadowland,” there was a different Icelandic word he would have used.)
Kari and Eyvind are amusing characters, and Holt has fun portraying their relationship. Eyvind doesn't really like Kari much (or so he claims), but they've been together so long they're like an old married couple, bickering, cooperating, and correcting each other's memories.
Norsemen, as Holt pictures them, are not particularly heroic as a group. Few of them, he would have us believe, even have much experience with arms. They have no observable honor ethic, and are not even very superstitious. They're pretty much like us.
Which works for the story, but I don't believe it. It's good to try to bridge the gap between us and the Vikings, avoiding what I've often called the “clunkiness” of the classic Viking story. But to deny that a bridge is necessary, it seems to me, falsifies history.
Also employing modernisms like “uptight” in the dialogue seems just wrong to me.
Meadowland becomes in itself a character in the story—a seductive, inviting country that nevertheless destroys everyone who tries to exploit its promises. The comic tone of the early episodes eventually devolves into the horror and tragedy of the fourth voyage (which you know about if you've read the sagas, but I won't spoil it here).
I have a suspicion (I'm not sure) that the author may have intended a subtextual comment on America as a malicious force in the world and the source of all the world's problems. I may be wrong about that; I hope I am. I'd looked for better from Holt.
Meadowland is a very readable, enjoyable book, but I can't give it my highest recommendation. Cautions for language and adult situations.
(For the record, this is the first novel I read on my new Kindle.)