Desert Isle Keeper
Danegeld. Hmm, odd title – clinch cover – the man looks a bit like John D’Salvo with blonde hair. As for the woman – nice jewelry – elegant dress – I didn’t know the one shoulder style was popular back then – looks like she’s going to an awards show. Let’s check out the back blurb. Hmm, I think this is a medieval tale. Let’s see how it reads. Oh my!
Readers, throw away any preconceived notions you might have of a pretty medieval romance. Danegeld is unique. It is not the usual romance set in the High Middle Ages, featuring elegant ladies and chivalrous knights. Danegeld takes place during the Dark Ages. There is no elegance. Homes are rude huts. People are ignorant and either brutal or brutalized. Wounds fester and stink and people die young. This is a dark book – but it is not depressing. It is a journey of discovery for the main characters and a superb evocation of the Dark Ages for the reader. I am thankful that Susan Squires wrote such a different book and that Leisure was willing to publish it.
When Britta was 15 and beginning to feel the stirrings of a magical healing talent within her, she was brutally raped by the Saxon leader Offa and his men who also killed her mother and father. Britta fled the village of Dunford to the island of Deofric which is supposed to be cursed. There she lives with her dog Fenris and only comes to Dunford to trade her herbs for food and other necessities.
A Viking ship comes to the village to raid the local church. In the raid, the Viking leader, Karn is taken prisoner by Offa and his men who torture and rape him. Britta is in Dunford tending to those who were wounded, and while she is helping them, she sees the tortured and brutalized Karn. Karn’s wounds call to Britta who has a flash of a vision and feels the stirrings of her magical talent she thought was lost with her virginity. She rescues Karn and nurses him back to health. Gradually they learn to communicate. Karn’s wounds have left him haltr (crippled in his leg and sword arm) and his rape has left him shamed. When Offa finds out that Karn is alive, he raids Britta’s island. But Karn and Britta make their escape and take off to the fens where an old witch is rumored to live. This old wicce woman may be able to help Britta and as for Karn, he has nowhere else to go.
Karn and Britta are both characters who are of their time. They are not 21st century men and women who are slumming in the Dark Ages and they are not at all prettified. Karn is a Viking and a raider. He has no problem with despoiling the sacred since he comes to Dunford to pillage a church. Karn will kill and rape and has done so in the past. He is a warrior and there is no chivalry about him. Karn’s very persona is wrapped up in his identity as a warrior and when he loses his ability to fight he feels he has been robbed of his very self. At one point he is in such despair over his lameness that he contemplates suicide. The reader might think Karn is a terrible, hateful man from this barebones description, but Squires gives him depth. As the story progresses, Karn takes a journey, not only a physical one, but an interior one as well. His final destination is not the Valhalla of the warrior he was; instead it is the home of the leader he has become.
Britta too is a memorable character. As the daughter of a wicce woman, she had her path planned until Offa and his men robbed her of her way of life. At first she tends Karn because of the vision she had, and later because she comes to care for him. Like Karn, Britta goes on a journey, both physical and spiritual and comes out to a life and a place that she would not have forseen back when her path seemed so straight.
The setting is one of the best things about Danegeld. It takes place during a time when the cultures of the Saxons and the Danes were merging. King Alfred makes an appearance and establishes the Danelaw where Vikings like Karn could live. We get glimpses of how the languages of the Vikings and the Saxons were exchanged and combined to make the English language. At one point, Karn shows the Saxons of the fens how his people settle disputes by law, not combat. The glimpses of life during this time were so interesting that it made me want to go and read more about this period in English history.
Bravo Susan Squires, and thank you so much Leisure, for giving us something different. Thanks also to the Romance Writers of America who gave this book a Golden Heart award. Now it’s up to us, the readers. I’ve heard quite a few grumbles that we are tired of the same old characters and the same old plots. If we let this wonderful, original book fall by the wayside, we will be stuck with cookie cutter books and will have only ourselves to blame.