Kidnapped by the Viking
Under the name Megan Crane, Caitlin Crews has plenty of experience writing faux-Vikings in her dystopian Edge series. I was curious to see how she’d do with an actual Viking in a genuine Dark Ages setting. The answer? Pretty well!
In 918, the real-life Lady of the Mercians (daughter of Alfred the Great), Aethelflaed, died after leading Mercia for seven years. Little is known about her daughter Aelfwynn, who inherited Mercia from her mother but was “sent into Wessex” and vanishes from the historical record. As a potential claimant to the throne of Mercia, Aelfwynn would be an asset to a husband and a liability to her uncle, King Edward. Crews takes this moment as the starting point for Kidnapped by the Viking, hypothesizing that Edward arranges for Aelfwynn to go into a convent but arranges for her to be murdered on the road. This plan is interrupted by the Irish-born Viking Thorbrand, himself sent to kidnap Aelfwynn by his king, Ragnall (again, a real historical figure).
In addition to Aethelflaed and the royals, Crews incorporates other historical events, such as the expulsion of the Vikings from Ireland. Clearly, she did her research. I always appreciate a book which sends me to Google (I went down a serious Aethelflaed rabbit hole thanks to this one), and I liked that she took on a story which could connect to the historical record without requiring her to revise it.
This book is hotter than most Harlequin historicals I’ve read, and it definitely has a more old-school vibe. Now, I’m not a fan of historicals where the dialogue reads like a legal document (‘Do you consent to this part of me touching you in this location?’), but, Goldilocks that I am, I think this book may list a bit too far to the other side. Certainly, for a tenth-century Viking, Thorbrand is progressive, and knowing that he will marry Aelfwynn, he wants sex to be something she participates in enthusiastically, and invests time in seducing her. On the other hand, Aelfwynn believes herself to be a thrall/slave. If you’re a reader who wants free and clear consent, it’s hard to argue Aelfwynn could give it under those conditions. It is also suggested, without using modern terms, that Aelfwynn is a submissive, both sexually and in terms of her daily life. (I wish that characterization had been consistent in the entire book – some scenes where she gets scrappy feel like another female character was grafted on).
I enjoyed the road-trip romance and was relieved at how level-headed Aelfwynn is about her kidnapping. Abandoned by ineffective guards and anticipating an assassination attempt by her uncle, she has no better option than Thorbrand, who at least wants her alive. Once she realizes this, she makes the best of it (even when he requires her to bathe like a Viking, which is to say much more frequently than a skeptical Mercian). I liked how Aelfwynn and Thorbrand both came from dramatic settings (war and politics) but wanted a peaceful and quiet life – and, in Thorbrand’s case, felt ashamed of that because of the cultural value placed on warrior masculinity. I believed that both of them had been dealt a lucky hand, being thrown together in a way which enabled them both to live in a life they wanted. While they feel comfortably accessible to a modern reader, they’re not modern, especially in gender roles and religion.
My biggest concerns about the book are inconsistent characterization and the logical flaws in Ragnall’s scheme. As mentioned, Aelfwynn is one of those ‘I have never in all my years behaved in X manner, but now this man will bring it out.’ Thorbrand is both a man who wants to seduce Aelfwynn and give her agency, and a man who allows her to believe, for no apparent reason, that he intends to keep her as a thrall instead of marry her at his king’s command. Frankly, though, why does Ragnall want Aelfwynn married to a minor vassal? Why not marry her himself – or, if his concern about provoking Edward is valid, why not keep her single so he can marry her later if he successfully invades Mercia? The politics on Aelfwynn’s side were meticulously plotted, but the Vikings were just sloppy.
Overall, Kidnapped by the Viking is a Viking story that kept me turning the pages. It has a few rough patches, but they’re outnumbered by the stronger sections. If you enjoy a dominant warrior hero, I expect you’ll find this kidnapping to be a good time.