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.