Sometimes I come across a book that I desperately want to like, but even if I give it every chance in the world to thrill me, I just can’t make myself recommend it. Maidensong is one of those books. It has so many unique elements going for it – non-English characters, an amazing setting, a meaty, epic story – but it just doesn’t live up to the promise. There were definitely some good elements to the story, but these were countered by just too many weak spots.
As the book opens, Rika has witnessed the death of her father at the hands of Viking raiders. Rika’s father, a Norse skald (storyteller), had traveled Scandanavia with Rika and her brother and by Norse law, should have been exempt from capture. The raider’s captain, Bjorn the Black, is not entirely convinced of Rika’s claim to be the daughter of a famous skald and a skald in her own right, so he takes her and her brother as captives back to his home in Sognefjord.
In Sognefjord, Bjorn is no longer a powerful and independent captain, but instead is a landless second son bound by oath to his older brother Gunnar, a situation the reader is shown weighs heavily on him. Bjorn is respected by many, but can never be totally free to chart his own destiny. Rika, on the other hand, is merely a thrall (slave) and forced into hard labor. Even though she is a thrall, Bjorn is still captivated by Rika’s spirit and storytelling abilities and finds himself coming to respect and even love her.
Maidensong is a big, epic story. It spans thousands of miles and covers much more than the paltry week or two featured in many modern historical romances. This epic sweep often makes the book feel like an old-style historical (though, thankfully, without the overbearing rapist heroes and quivering meek virgins of old) and in this sense the novel is very refreshing. The story itself, very like a Norse saga in some ways, is unique and definitely has enjoyable moments.
Unfortunately, such a big novel really needed more than the page count alloted it. As I read, I kept getting the feeling that the author – who makes her debut with this book – had to skim over the emotional development of her characters in order to bring her story to a close before running out of pages, making the book feel rushed and without allowing sufficient time for readers to get to know the main characters. Worst of all, this distance can make scenes which are obviously meant to be filled with emotion seem a little hackneyed or shallow.
The story told in Maidensong is an interesting tale, but the author rarely brings readers fully into the action. Though there are points, such as the descriptions of Constantinople, that feel very vivid, there are also many places where the author tells rather than shows. Since this author sometimes uses rather overblown prose to do her telling, things can feel a little cartoony at times. Given more space to develop the story and perhaps some tightening of style so that readers are consistently shown rather than told of the characters and their world, this author definitely has potential.
Because of the unique qualities of the story, I really wanted to like this book. However, I just cannot recommend a book that combines rich vivid scenes with uneven rushed action, but I do hold out hope that with some polishing, Ms. Groe can bring unique and enjoyable historicals in the future.