When we left the Viking crew of the longship Red Dragon, led in theory by Jarl Ornolf Hrafnsson but in reality by his son-in-law Thorgrim Ulfsson, also called Thorgrim Night Wolf, they had lost nearly everything but their lives, including the Red Dragon.
I had the opportunity to visit modern day Dublin between reading the first and second books. We even took a boat cruise down the River Liffey and around the headland to the north of Dublin Bay. Needless to say, this vibrant modern city built on a medieval street grid bears little resemblance to Dubh-linn, but still gave me a sense of place. In the Irish country side one really can feel the weight of the centuries.
In this highly entertaining sequel, Nelson develops the characters we met in the first book more fully. We find Jarl Ornolf happily ensconced in the mead hall in Dubh-linn, the rapidly growing Norse trading port on Ireland’s east coast. Norwegians, or “Fin-gall” having taken it from the Danish “Dubh-gall”, Olaf the White rules, and Ornolf is more than happy to preside over the drunken revelries of the mead hall. Thorgrim, however, is anxious to get back to his homestead in Vik. His problem is that he is now penniless; having lost his ship and crew; but no Viking with a longship seems in any hurry to sail back to Norway.
In an effort to change his fortune, Thorgrim has signed onto the crew of Jarl Arinbjorn, a suspiciously ingratiating character whom Thorgrim doesn’t quite trust. Thorgrim’s beloved younger son Harald is also on Arinbjorn’s longship Black Raven as a Viking fleet launches a raid on the southern coast town of Cloyne and its monastery. Adding a wild card factor to the crew of Black Raven are a loose gaggle of berserkers, “led” by Starri the Deathless. Berserkers are a fascinating sub-set of the Norse raiders; working themselves into a frenzy of blood-lust, they disdain helmets and armor, often going shirtless. Used as disposable shock troops by the more “normal” Norsemen, the berserkers care not whether they live or die. Starri openly weeps after surviving the battle for Cloyne, having been once again denied Valhalla, the reward for Norsemen who die in battle with sword in hand. Starri will play a large role in the story that unfolds.
In this volume we will also become reacquainted with two remarkable Irish women from Fin-gall, Morrigan and Brigit. Brigit’s father, King Mael Sechnaill mac Ruanaid of Brega, was killed in that book and we find her marrying an empty headed young kinglet, Conlaed. Brigit hopes to rule through him while at the same time providing a legitimate father for the baby already growing inside her – in truth the child of Harald the Norseman. Morrigan has her own plans to acquire power through her brother Flann. Behind all the scheming lies the Crown of the Three Kingdoms that would – in theory – unite the entire island against the Norse invaders. The monk Father Finnian becomes a major and instrumental character and perhaps the most admirable in the story.
In Fin-gall we learned that Thorgrim is called Night Wolf because it is said he can become a wolf and roam the land during the dark hours. The truth of this was left vague, but in Dubh-linn Thorgrim’s ability is pretty clear cut – he can really do it. In fact, his supernatural ability leads to triumph in the taking of Cloyne when he discovers a secret of the walled town. What else will the Night Wolf learn and do? Read to find out.
I found Dubh-linn a worthy sequel to Fin-gall with greater character development, more involvement of the Irish, and a good sense of the swirling tensions around the island during this period. The various Irish kingdoms and minor kingdoms had never been united and were always at war with one another in various alliances or convenience. A movement to unite the island – led by the church – featured the Crown of the Three Kingdoms. The lure of its perceived power was highly seductive. Into this mix had come the Danes and later the Norse, bringing warrior skills far above the average of the locals. The Norse had also created the first real city in the form of Dubh-linn, creating a major trading port and source of both wealth and danger. The clash of religions between the “pagans” and the Christians added yet another source of tension and hatred. Nelson has done an admirable job of stirring this mix together to create an entertaining story with characters you will come to care about.