James L. Nelson is a former professional mariner and has authored 17 books of fiction and non-fiction before writing Fin Gall. This novel marks a significant departure for Nelson, who heretofore has written novels with a naval setting covering age of sail pirates, the American Revolution, and the American Civil War. He has also written non-fiction works covering much of the same periods, and recently wrote of the Battle of Bunker Hill.
Now he has ventured to Viking Age Ireland, the year 852 in particular, when Vikings were ravaging Ireland, much as they had Britain before. Norwegians by way of Scotland founded a longphort, or ship fort on the River Liffey. The settlement came to be named after a pond formed where the River Poodle met the Liffey, which was called Black Pool, or, in Gaelic, Dubh-Linn. The Norwegians, called fin gall (white strangers) by the Irish, were later driven out by Danish Vikings, called dubh gall (black strangers for the darkness of their mail armor). This is the way things stand in eastern Ireland when our novel begins.
Our protagonist, Thorgrim Ulfsson, also called Thorgrim Night Wolf, is from the Vik region of Norway. An excellent warrior and poet, Thorgrim has been raised to high rank by his Jarl, Ornolf Hrafnsson. He has been honored to marry Ornolf’s daughter Hallbera– a happy marriage until Hallbera’s death in childbirth. Now, called once again by Ornolf to go a-viking, he is sailing to Ireland in the longship Red Dragon. Along is Thorgrim’s strong 15 year old second son Harald, much beloved. Ornolf is old, fat, usually drunk and long past his prime and Thorgrim commands in all but name. None on board know that Dubh-Linn is now in the hand of Danes, who bear no love for their Norwegian cousins.
While battling a raging storm off the eastern coast of Ireland, the Red Dragons spot another ship. The smart thing to do would be to continue sailing in such conditions, but these are Vikings and plundering other ships is what they do. They manage to catch the loaded curragh, but this is no simple trader and is filled with a score of armed and armored warriors. Throwing caution to the wind, the Red Dragons grapple their prey and the bitter fight ends with all the Irish dead, valiantly falling to five-to-one odds. In the aftermath, Thorgrim discovers the treasure the Irish have died to protect. This is something far more important than Thorgrim can imagine, and later he will learn it was being borne to Irish King Mael Sechnaill mac Ruanaid, who wants it desperately to further his power. So does the Danish ruler of Dubh-Linn, Orm, for quite opposite reasons, and several other would be rulers – Dane and Irish. Thorgrim will have to use all his warrior’s skill, his thinking powers, and maybe even his ability to prowl the night in the guise of a wolf to bring himself, Harald, and at least some of the crew through alive. Along the way, the fin gall will encounter Morrigan, who seems to be just a simple Irish thrall with some healing arts and Brigit, the beautiful and strong willed daughter of Mael Sechnaill.
Well written with an appealing – and appalling – cast of characters both Viking and Irish, Fin Gall will take the reader to a time and place long gone, but no less real for that. This volume is planned to be the first of a series and I look forward to the next installment. Highly recommended.
Thanks, Bill, for the great review! It inspired me to pick up a copy of Fin Gall for my kindle, available here.