A ponderous, meandering, but unquestionably great work. Science-fiction grandmaster Anderson, who died of cancer in August, was renowned among postwar SF writers for his elaborately detailed future worlds and his uneven, albeit prolific, output of novels about clever, marginal characters who find themselves whirled into the center of vastly complicated historical and political events. A voracious scholar of Scandinavian languages, history, and mythology, Anderson based many of his stories on plots and characters lifted from Norse sagas. Mother of Kings is a direct reworking of tales about Gunnhild Ozuradottir, the historical wife of tenth-century Norse King Eirik Haraldsson Blood-Axe, who bore him nine children before his murder. Spanning a grim, unforgivingly primitive landscape reaching from Iceland to arctic Norway, down to England and east to Russia, it is mainly about Gunnhild, a child of a minor Norse warlord, who barely escapes a rape and then persuades her father Ozur to let her study sorcery with a pair of Finnish wizards. When the wizards become far too friendly, she makes a pact with Thorolf Skallagrimson, brother of the scheming, brutishly violent Egil (whose sagas are the earliest source for Gunnhild), to slay the wizards. Thorolf introduces her to Eirik, whom she glimpsed in a vision and quickly marries. While Eirik plunges into increasingly treacherous maneuvers for control of the unraveling empire of King Harald, Gunnhild uses her sorcery and increasingly astute political savvy to survive a series of intrigues. Though powerful beyond her dreams, Gunnhild fails to control her fractious brood and flees to the Orkney Islands.
Episodic adventure in a visceral, peculiarly archaic language (“Soon after the knarr turned in there, it was sail down, oars out and Skeggi at the tiller”) with far too many similarly named characters. Still, a worthy effort through it all.