Desert Isle Keeper
The Viking Chief’s Marriage Alliance
Reader, Viking romances are my jam. I’m here for long-haired men with braids and beards and muscles for days, tattoos and runes, long-houses and long ships, long winters and starry night skies, cinnamon roll Chieftains, and Valkyrie-esque women. More please. Unfortunately, there are too few great and awesome Viking romances out there (DO NOT tell me to read Johanna Lindsey. DO NOT.). But the drought is over! The Viking Chief’s Marriage Alliance is a terrific début, and despite a few problems, it’s one of my favorite historical romances this year.
Ten years earlier, Gyda Ynglingdóttir married Jarl Halvorson of Njardarheimr, a man thirty years her senior, in a political alliance forged after five years of negotiation by her ambitious father. While Gyda didn’t marry for love, her sacrifice ensured that her three younger sisters one-day might. Unfortunately, it didn’t protect any of them from the perils of childbirth or Gyda from an abusive husband and his hateful sons.
When TVCMA begins, Jarl Halvor is dead and Gyda is ready to bury her past and begin again. But when Halvor’s eldest son threatens to marry her to solidify his own power, Gyda flees her home at Viken and sails to Jorvik (a prosperous trading hub) hoping to live independently as an artisan weaver and dressmaker. After three stormy days at sea, the ship founders on a rocky shore. Desperate and afraid, Gyda ignores a would-be rescuer shouting at her from his nearby boat, and instead frantically attempts to retrieve a silver chest. Without it, Gyda knows she’ll once again be at the mercy of a man – Sven, the former husband of her dead twin sister Astrid, a virtual stranger whom she hasn’t seen in years, and her only living relative.
Thorstein Bergson the Burned (for the enemy symbol branded on his face) has had a hard life. Famine and disease stole his family from him at a young age, but he rose from a nameless youth in the Great Army to a warrior respected by jarls and kings. . . . Most men fought for glory. But owning land had always been his ultimate goal. Rewarded with his own settlement after helping to take Jorvik, he longs for a wife and family to share his home. Wary of love after his first marriage ended in divorce (his politically ambitious wife left him for a more powerful and influential jarl), he’s patiently waiting for his Overlord, Sven, to offer him a suitable wife and solidify their alliance to each other.
After spotting a lonely oak tree burning atop a nearby cliff after a thunderstrike, Thorstein ventured his ship closer and discovered a wrecked and sinking ship at the rocky shoreline. Spotting survivors clinging to the helm, he orders his crew to move closer, and shouts at the survivors to swim over. He’s watching the swimmers approach when he spots a beautiful woman in a cobalt blue cloak arguing with a man on the crumbling deck. When the angry man jumps overboard, Thorstein assumes it’s her husband and vows to leave her aboard the ship, too. But when the man arrives, he admits he was hired to sail her to Jorvik. Thorstein dives into the sea to save her. Once on board, he implores her to come with him. Quickly realizing why she hasn’t fled the ship (she’s trying to retrieve her silver), he throws her overboard and tows her back to his ship.
Terrified and trying to hide it, Gyda reveals her identity to an angry and annoyed Thorstein. His temper makes her nervous, and so she masks her discomfort behind an icy, aloof facade. He mistakenly assumes her attitude is because she believes she’s better than him and that she put her life at risk out of greed, and all Thorstein sees is a spoiled princess. Meanwhile, Gyda is frantic. With no money, no items to trade, and no one but Sven to possibly help her, she begs Thorstein to bring her to Jorvik. He agrees, wrongly assuming she’s searching for a wealthy new husband. Hurt, Gyda doesn’t bother to correct him.
Oh, man. What a mess. Friends, after this inauspicious start, they visit Sven (her Sven is his Sven!), and when Sven suggests Thorstein marry Gyda, Thorstein struggles to come up with a good reason to say no. Which, obviously (since this is a romance novel), he can’t! Also, he’s deeply in lust with Gyda and in denial about how awesome she is. Thorstein! Anyway, Thorstein’s marriage of convenience goes sideways almost from the moment they pledge their vows. Everyone in the settlement loves Gyda. She’s sweet. She’s kind. She’s a hard worker. She’s an asset to the settlement. But a bitter, divorced Thorstein won’t see it. He’s frustrated by his attraction to Gyda and makes every attempt to keep his distance, while she’s secretly determined to make their marriage and the settlement a success. Gyda likes Thorstein! He’s a great chieftain beloved by his people, he’s super hot (think Rollo from Vikings), and he can’t hide the lust in his eyes when he thinks she doesn’t notice. But since Gyda is hiding…
Ha! Well, I can’t tell you what she’s hiding because that would spoil this excellent story. Suffice to say, it’s a big secret and she’s determined Thorstein will never know it. If I have any complaint, it’s how long this secret is kept – and the addition of a superfluous villain who makes an appearance just for it to finally come to light.
Thorstein and Gyda are compelling characters, exquisitely rendered in this fantastic Viking world of Ms. Morris’ imagination. Much like other women of her time, Gyda was at the mercy of the men in her life. A pawn in her father’s political games, abused by her husband and his sons, and left to fend for herself after the tragic death of everyone in her immediate family, Gyda has few options when Thorshein rescues her from the sinking ship. But despite believing she’s unlovable, Gyda doesn’t give up. She sees possibility in the settlement and in her husband, and fights hard for her own happiness. Thorstein is similarly burdened by a difficult past – first losing his parents at a young age, and then abandoned by his wife – and he deals with his feelings for Gyda by hiding from them and her. Time and proximity forces him to admit his first impressions of her were wrong; when he opens himself up to Gyda, he sees the woman hidden within her icy persona. It’s a lovely transition.
Morris’ world-building is masterful, and I happily immersed myself in it from the moment Jarl Halvor sailed away to Valhalla. Morris once said she felt unqualified to write historical romance, but decided she was wrong after spending so much time researching this story.
But actually, everything is your interpretation. Your world. At the end of the day, I write historical romance. Yes, there’s historical accuracy, but I’m still writing a fantasy world, with a delicious romance at its heart. I can’t be writing about my hero having round-worms or lice —no matter how accurate that might be. My reader needs to fall in love with my characters and my setting. It’s a fairytale at the end of the day… but isn’t all fiction? It certainly is in my mind and that’s why I love it. Pure escapism.
Me too! Morris’ fictional Viking world is one I happily escaped to, and I highly recommend you do the same.