The best historical novelist since France’s Zoé Oldenbourg still has the chops—and the Serpent Dreamer will not disappoint...



Holland’s trilogy about life, love and war in tenth-century Vinland concludes with this event-filled chronicle of exile, pilgrimage and redemption.

The previous volumes, The Soul Thief and The Witches’ Kitchens, detailed the adventures of the Irishman Corban (angrily dubbed “Loosestrife” for his rejection of his father’s warlike ways), after his family is slaughtered by Viking invaders, his twin sister Mav raped and enslaved by notorious warlord Eric Bloodaxe (whom Corban confronts and kills) and Corban and his surviving kin have faced the wrath of Bloodaxe’s vengeful widow Gunnhild. All this makes for a rich tale indeed, efficiently extended here, focusing on Corban’s uneasy relations with the Wolf tribe’s hardbitten “sachem,” Miska, who permits Corban to live only because of Mav (now a dreamlike, psychically gifted “Forest Woman” who has borne Miska’s daughter Ahanton, and obsesses over the sachem’s every waking moment). Holland’s plot takes off when Corban, accompanied by Ahanton and her surrogate mother Epashti (the Wolves’ “herbwoman,” pregnant with Corban’s child), is sent to find Miska’s potential enemies the Sun People, but in fact seeks a land of his own dreams, where justice may prevail over violence. Meanwhile, Miska wages war on rival tribes infringing on the Wolves’ hunting grounds; Ahanton’s increasingly troubling dreams (an inheritance from Mav) feature an all-devouring serpent—and reproduce many of the central themes of Nordic mythology; and Miska’s final confrontation with Corban brings the saga to a surprising end. Holland’s expertly researched narrative abounds with fascinating lore, and the stoical endurance embodied by her characters make even the most bloodthirsty of them vividly charismatic. Occasional anachronisms (e.g., “She’s had it”) aside, this flamboyant re-creation of the distant past—Holland’s 27th novel—is another genre triumph.

The best historical novelist since France’s Zoé Oldenbourg still has the chops—and the Serpent Dreamer will not disappoint her many fans.

Pub Date: Dec. 1, 2005

ISBN: 0-765-30557-7

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Forge

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2005

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Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.


In this follow-up to the widely read The Tattooist of Auschwitz (2018), a young concentration camp survivor is sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor in a Russian gulag.

The novel begins with the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops in 1945. In the camp, 16-year-old Cecilia "Cilka" Klein—one of the Jewish prisoners introduced in Tattooist—was forced to become the mistress of two Nazi commandants. The Russians accuse her of collaborating—they also think she might be a spy—and send her to the Vorkuta Gulag in Siberia. There, another nightmarish scenario unfolds: Cilka, now 18, and the other women in her hut are routinely raped at night by criminal-class prisoners with special “privileges”; by day, the near-starving women haul coal from the local mines in frigid weather. The narrative is intercut with Cilka’s grim memories of Auschwitz as well as her happier recollections of life with her parents and sister before the war. At Vorkuta, her lot improves when she starts work as a nurse trainee at the camp hospital under the supervision of a sympathetic woman doctor who tries to protect her. Cilka also begins to feel the stirrings of romantic love for Alexandr, a fellow prisoner. Though believing she is cursed, Cilka shows great courage and fortitude throughout: Indeed, her ability to endure trauma—as well her heroism in ministering to the sick and wounded—almost defies credulity. The novel is ostensibly based on a true story, but a central element in the book—Cilka’s sexual relationship with the SS officers—has been challenged by the Auschwitz Memorial Research Center and by the real Cilka’s stepson, who says it is false. As in Tattooist, the writing itself is workmanlike at best and often overwrought.

Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-250-26570-8

Page Count: 352

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

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The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as...

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An unlikely love story set amid the horrors of a Nazi death camp.

Based on real people and events, this debut novel follows Lale Sokolov, a young Slovakian Jew sent to Auschwitz in 1942. There, he assumes the heinous task of tattooing incoming Jewish prisoners with the dehumanizing numbers their SS captors use to identify them. When the Tätowierer, as he is called, meets fellow prisoner Gita Furman, 17, he is immediately smitten. Eventually, the attraction becomes mutual. Lale proves himself an operator, at once cagey and courageous: As the Tätowierer, he is granted special privileges and manages to smuggle food to starving prisoners. Through female prisoners who catalog the belongings confiscated from fellow inmates, Lale gains access to jewels, which he trades to a pair of local villagers for chocolate, medicine, and other items. Meanwhile, despite overwhelming odds, Lale and Gita are able to meet privately from time to time and become lovers. In 1944, just ahead of the arrival of Russian troops, Lale and Gita separately leave the concentration camp and experience harrowingly close calls. Suffice it to say they both survive. To her credit, the author doesn’t flinch from describing the depravity of the SS in Auschwitz and the unimaginable suffering of their victims—no gauzy evasions here, as in Boy in the Striped Pajamas. She also manages to raise, if not really explore, some trickier issues—the guilt of those Jews, like the tattooist, who survived by doing the Nazis’ bidding, in a sense betraying their fellow Jews; and the complicity of those non-Jews, like the Slovaks in Lale’s hometown, who failed to come to the aid of their beleaguered countrymen.

The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as nonfiction. Still, this is a powerful, gut-wrenching tale that is hard to shake off.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-06-279715-5

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 17, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2018

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