I chose this title because I had a craving to return to my roots where reading romances is concerned, but what I’d expected to be a quick, candy-bar read turned out to be much more. The story speaks to the parts of me that are traditional, and those wanting to see growth and change. This is far from the “love blooms in reluctant couples” theme that many historical romances use. Rather, it’s a story of growing respect and understanding during dangerous, tumultuous times.
Ilsa and Bjorn follow a path strewn with hard choices and unwanted losses. Their ways have never been easy, nor have they sat back and let fate make choices for them. This is especially true for Ilsa because she stretches the boundaries of her gender to address the needs of those who depend on her. She has many secrets, some of which she keeps even from the reader for a bit, but the small details add up so when Ilsa reveals the secret to us, it’s not a shock. Before you think this is the modern world crammed into Viking history, however, know the original understanding of Viking life had many flaws. More recent discoveries are changing those assumptions. The author includes a note at the end referencing a historical Viking woman whose life followed a similar pattern.
Bjorn’s concerns are more personal. He fights a craving to reclaim the home that cast him out as a boy of twelve almost as strong as the one to punish those who remain for not stopping his father. It’s a measure of the man he has become that Bjorn can see and learn about the conditions in his old home despite the filters of his anger and confusion. Ilsa offers a different form of distraction and makes keeping to the rules of his brother warrior band harder than Bjorn would have thought possible.
The parallels to modern times in this story are strong. Several themes, while true to the book’s period, echo strongly in the modern world with lessons to teach those willing to listen. Don’t expect a pause to educate, however. The themes are woven tight into the story, and cause trouble for Ilsa and Bjorn whether or not the reader sees a greater significance as I did.
The rules of that time might be different, but the needs and weaknesses of the characters are relatable. They struggle between what is right, the promises they’ve made, and who they want to be. I was completely absorbed…so much so I forgot to make notes for this review a good part of the time. While I knew what I wanted to happen, the characters were just unpredictable enough to leave me startled a time or two, making the book stronger and more complicated.
There is an open-door love scene and the passion burning between the main characters is tangible even before they’re willing to act on it. Passion is not the only strong emotion though. The story is far from simple and has darkness as well as light. The warring is not painted with a heroic sheen nor are the battles waged closer to home glossed over. This could easily have been a banished son returns a conquering hero to save the day. Instead, there’s a multi-layered tale full of challenges about personal and societal beliefs where the characters must face their own demons as well as ones imposed from others. There’s an important theme played out in the background, but the story of two childhood friends torn apart then reunited in the worse circumstances is enough to satisfy the romantic heart.
I enjoyed the sharp and layered banter between two mature protagonists who had seen much of life and stayed strong despite it. Viking words are introduced with a skillful hand so the context makes the meaning clear while the writing itself is evocative. People develop distinct personalities (except for those mostly in the background where similar names sometimes tripped me up), and the Earth itself comes alive in its trees, land, and waters. The wind has a voice, but more than that, the variety of beliefs add another depth where who a person turns to for blessings shows in their outlook.
I cannot say more without spoilers, so I’ll leave you with this: the ending is fascinating. It’s not what I’d come to expect, and yet it is appropriate for this book with all the questions it raises and explores.
P.S. I received this title from the publisher through NetGalley in return for an honest review.