Susan Squires’s Danegeld was one of the most pleasant surprises of 2001 for me. So I was excited to review its sequel Danelaw, and pleased to find that it was another rollicking good read.
Epona is the last descendant of the Horse Goddess. She lives alone in her small cottage with only her herd of horses for company. Her Gift, passed down through generations of mothers, is to be able to communicate with horses and other plant-eating animals. That Gift is fading, however, getting fainter every day, and she knows that she must fulfill her duty to have a daughter so that the Gift will not be lost to the earth and the ages. She has been afraid to do this, though, since she saw her own mother fade and die, as she, Pony, grew older.
Valgar the Beast is a Dane come back from exile in the Steppes. He hopes to create for himself a future in the new Danelaw. After undergoing trial by fire (literally) to prove himself to Guthrum, konnungr of the Danish lands, he is given the responsibility for the village of Chippenham and its surrounding area. While scouting the area, he learns that there are horses about, horses that could be of use to him in keeping control. So he goes to see Pony to persuade her to give up her herd. Pony is not persuadable, so Val hauls her up over his shoulder and takes her to Chippenham. If he can’t use her horses, he can use her status as Horse Goddess to firmly establish himself with the locals as the rightful leader.
Pony, of course, doesn’t want to go to Chippenham. She fears the Danes, and she fears Osrick, the ousted eorl of Chippenham. She wants to be left alone with Herd. So why, against all of her instincts and desires, does she work to save Val’s damaged arm? Why is she drawn to this warrior who is the opposite of all she believes in and values?
I enjoyed Danelaw very much, but it was one of those books that only really picked up in the middle. After a very memorable and surprising beginning, the story’s pacing lags a bit, and the reader must do a bit of wading through Pony different and occasionally slightly bizarre mental meanderings. Her feelings on Herd, her Duty, and the Mother are all thoroughly delved into. It isn’t until well over halfway through that you get a sense for why she is the way she is.
Val is at times equally frustrating. He hates himself because once long ago he followed his conscience instead of Danish Law. He can’t decide whether it’s good or bad that he tends to be merciful to the weak. He is caught between his commitment to be Dane and his desire to settle down and live in peace. However, even those both Pony and Val’s thought processes are a bit repetitive and irritating, there is no denying that they are both original characters acting in accordance with the dictates of long extinct societies. I tend to like my Medievals to feel Medieval and if that means being confronted with dirt, sweat, blood and strange ways of thinking – hey, bring it on.
Like Danegeld, this book is a bit low on romance and high on adventure. The last half of the story moved quickly and was both engaging and unpredictable. The characters of Britta and Karn make a few appearances, and their scenes actually manage to add something to the story. Alfred of Wessex (Alfred the Great) also appears, and his character is an interesting one. The Alfred scenes were a bit jarring to me, however, since I was predisposed to envision him as the true hero he was in Joan Wolf’s The Edge of Light.
One of the most fascinating parts of both of Squires’ Medievals is their treatment of Christianity. Squires makes a point of showing how Christianity was different from other religions of the time and how the older beliefs would be absorbed into the newer religion. In Danelaw, Christianity is presented in a positive light. Val is intrigued by its tenets and beliefs and drawn toward its promise of forgiveness, and the Christian priests are characters worthy of respect.
Danelaw is likely not the most romantic romance I will read this year, but it is a rousing adventure tale full of the details of life and war in the dark struggle between the Saxons and the Danes. Squires is an author who writes what she will, and her books are impressive in their uniqueness. I, for one, really appreciate that.