Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P.O. Box 425, Keller, TX 76244-0425
Books for Adults - FictionDubh-Linn Fin Gall The Lord of Vík-Ló The Only Life That Mattered The Pirate Round The French Prize
With a longship of his own, Thorgrim Night Wolf finally sets sail for Norway with Harald, his son, and Ornolf, his father-in-law. But the Norse sail at the whims of the gods, and the vessel collides with a log. Forced to put into shore, but determined not to return to Dubh-linn, Thorgrim and his men land in Vík-Ló, a Danish longphort on the eastern coast of Ireland. After the Danes grudgingly allow them to make repairs, Thorgrim – much to his regret – soon finds himself entangled in the struggle between the Irish and the Danes.
Lord of Vík-Ló Grimarr Giant needs to find the plundered treasure that his trusted friend buried before being attacked by Lorcan, an Irish leader who wishes to rid Ireland of all Norsemen. Only one person – a slave girl – survived the attack, and no one among the Danes can communicate in the Irish tongue. Harald can so Grimarr enlists his help as a translator. Grimarr also needs Thorgrim’s assistance in recovering the treasure, but the struggle between the Danes and these Irish are not Thorgrim’s affair and he declines the request. Making an end run around him, Grimarr sends a man to spread the word of the treasure quest. This news excites the Norse, especially when told they will share in the wealth. Without these men Thorgrim won’t be able to sail home, so he acquiesces to Grimarr’s request. This manipulation is but the first trick up Grimarr’s sleeve, and as the days pass it becomes harder to tell who is friend and who is foe.
Lorcan thirsts for power and with his overlord absent, he is determined to wrest control of the area. To that end he has three goals: gain the treasure for himself, steal or destroy a Viking longship, and destroy the longphort and its inhabitants so no more Northmen will ever dare to set foot there again. His spies in and around Vík-Ló keep him apprised of the goings-on there, and with the help of a turncoat among Grimarr’s men, Lorcan sets his plans in motion. The only thorns in gaining all he desires are Thorgrim Night Wolf and Starri the beserker.
The third book in The Norsemen Saga, The Lord of Vík-Ló is an intricately woven web of intrigue and betrayal. The occasional missing or misspelled word may distract some readers, but only momentarily. Action abounds and much of it takes place in and around the water, where readers are treated to battles between Viking ships and Irish currachs. The characters bring to life Norse lore and tradition, including their traditional boat burials. The story starts off slow – although not so the action – but once Thorgrim and his men enter the tale, the pace picks up and builds until a single crack unleashes an avalanche of cause and effect until the reader dare not put down the book.
Review Copyrighted ©2015 Cindy Vallar
Thorgim Night Wolf yearns to go home. He’s had his fill of Dubh-Linn (Old Norse name for Dublin) and the Irish, but his father-in-law has no desire to return to Norway and Thorgrim lacks a longship. The only way for him and his son, Harald, to make the journey is to join another raid, but Arinbjorn White-tooth is envious of Night Wolf’s abilities and influence over the other warriors. This jealousy merely worsens after his suggestion to sneak inside Cloyne and attack the Irish from within. With the help of Starri Deathless and other berserkers, as well as Harald, Thorgrim disregards Arinbjorn’s denial to attack and that decision gains the Vikings their target and earns Night Wolf an enemy.
Morrigan wants to wield the power, to rule her people, but first she must solidify her brother’s claim to the throne of Tara. One problem: Brigit, the daughter of the former king, still lives and has her own designs on the throne. To that end, she marries a lesser lord, one whom she can easily manipulate to do her will. To prevent her from gaining the upper hand, Morrigan informs the bridegroom that Brigit is pregnant and the child isn’t his. In the ensuing fury, Brigit kills her husband and then enlists the help of a priest, who takes her to Dubh-Linn to find the real father of her child, Harald. Perhaps with his help, and that of the other Vikings, she can regain the throne of Tara.
Uneasy alliances between enemies make for strange bedfellows, and aside from Harald, who is besotted with Brigit and unknowledgeable about the manipulations of women, no one truly trusts anyone else. Morrigan employs an ingenious, outside-of-the-box idea to help her brother defeat the Vikings. Arinbjorn intends to use the forthcoming battle to slay Thorgrim, and thus rid himself of a potential threat to his power, as well as retain the prize money he owes Night Wolf. Thorgrim distrusts Brigit, Morrigan, and Arinbjorn sufficiently to throw a wrench into all their plans.
The story may sound simple, but all the serpentine twists and turns make a deceptively complex tale that slowly builds to a stunning climax that won’t easily be deciphered during the journey. In spite of his flaws, Night Wolf wends his way beneath the reader’s skin until you want to cheer him on through all the strife, danger, and heartache he endures. Similar feelings abound for Starri Deathless – a new character in this second tale of The Norsemen Saga – who like other “sidekicks” sometimes takes center stage. He is the least likely ally, because he is a berserker, and yet the qualities that make him an all-too-human, maniacal warrior are exactly what breathes life into him. What I particularly enjoyed about Dubh-Linn are the complexity of Nelson’s characters and the depth of intrigue as the two story threads – Viking and Irish – slowly entwine until they become as intricate as the artistic designs of the Celts and the Norse.
Review Copyrighted ©2014 Cindy Vallar
In the midst of a fierce storm, the Norsemen attack an Irish curraugh. They expect to fight fishermen, but the Celts aboard the vessel are all warriors. When the fighting ends, only Thorgrim Night Wolf has any treasure – a crown of gold mounted with jewels and pieces of amber. But a sixth sense warns him not to share the prize with the others, so he hides it. Late at night, while moored near the Irish coast, he and Ornolf the Restless, his jarl and father-in-law, bury the crown in a secret place. There is a story behind this crown, and until they discover its worth, they dare not reveal any knowledge of it.
The Norsemen arrive in Dubh-linn to sell the rest of their plundered goods, but the longphort is no longer under the control of the Norse. Orm Ulfsson, a Dane, reigns, and with his henchman, Magnus Magnusson, he intends to gain even greater power – particularly if he can intercept the Crown of the Three Kingdoms before it’s delivered to the high king of Tara. Magnus also craves command, and if he secures the crown first, he will no longer need bend a knee to Orm. When the Norsemen arrive, Orm’s men discover the longship is crammed with Danish treasures and before the night is out, Thorgrim, Ornolf, and the other Norsemen find themselves imprisoned and tortured.
The one who holds the key to their release is a thrall named Morrigan, a healer who tends the Norsemen’s wounds. When her brother discovers they waylaid the curraugh bringing the crown to Tara, she senses Thorgrim knows where to find it. She helps them escape, but once free, her brother takes the wounded Norsemen, including Thorgrim’s son, to Tara. Harald and the others will be released once Morrigan returns to Tara with the crown. Escaping the stronghold proves the easiest part of their journey. With Orm’s men close on their trail, Thorgrim must use all his intelligence and skills to gain the hidden crown, rescue Harald, and find a way back to Norway. Others within Ireland also want the crown, plus a traitor walks among the Danes, and a member within the high king of Tara’s household disagrees with how he treats the wounded Norsemen. And someone else realizes the crown might prove valuable if given into another’s hands rather than those of the high kigh of Tara.
Like the seanchaí of yore, Nelson deftly spins a tale that intricately weaves the lore and culture of the Norse with the history of Ireland. He breathes life into the men who went a-viking, so they step off the page as they travel the sea and traverse a strange land, forever destroying the stereotype given us by those who fell victim to their raids. Readers will find themselves sitting on the edge of their seats, biting their nails, or holding their breath as the Norse, Danes, and Irish intrigue, betray, support, and survive in a brutal world where hope yet lives.
Review Copyrighted ©2013 Cindy Vallar
The Only Life That Mattered
by James L Nelson
McBooks Press, 2004, ISBN 1-59013-060-X, $16.95
When conversation turns to female pirates, two names perhaps are most often mentioned-- Mary Read and Anne Bonny. Historians know only the bare bones of these two women’s lives, but the facts are sufficient to form the basis of a novel. Within the pages of The Only Life That Mattered, the story of Mary Read and Anne Bonny, and their captain, Calico Jack Rackham unfolds.
Imprisoned in a Jamaican jail, awaiting trial for piracy, Mary ponders the circumstances that brought her to this point in time. Raised as a boy to gain financial support from her father’s family, she eventually fights with distinction in a British cavalry regiment until the War of the Spanish Succession ends. A brief marriage to her tent mate ends in tragedy, and eventually a destitute Mary returns to her life as Michael Read and signs aboard a Dutch merchantman bound for the Caribbean where pirates attack the ship. Anne Bonny, on the other hand, is the daughter of a wealthy and influential South Carolina businessman, but her rebelliousness and yearning for adventure compel her to elope with a poor sailor to New Providence, a favorite haunt of pirates. There she meets a dashing pirate named Jack Rackham, and together they carry on a torrid love affair in front of her husband. Since adultery is against the law and her husband contrives with the governor’s help to punish the couple, Anne convinces Jack that he must give up his king’s pardon and return to piracy once again. Once Read joins their crew, jealousy, vindictiveness, and fear meld with plundering, fighting, and love to eventually bring about the pirates’ capture.Survival and isolation make Mary a pragmatist who knows how to survive, and while she dreams of a different life, she accepts what fate has dealt her. Anne lives for the moment, wishing only for adventure, with little desire for close interaction with others. Jack achieves the daring success and reputation of a pirate captain, but fear gnaws at him. How three such disparate individuals form an unlikely partnership is what makes these historical individuals come alive in this book. Nelson’s knowledge of pirates combined with his experience as a sailor provide a credible and enthralling glimpse into pirate life during the Golden Age of Piracy. Although readers know the outcome before they open the book, Nelson’s masterful storytelling compels them to read until the last page to find the nuances and surprises that make this an unforgettable and alluring tale of piracy and women who choose to follow a path different than the one society contrives.
Note: This book was originally published as The Sweet Trade by Elizabeth Garrett. Substantial revisions were made to this edition prior to this current publication.
Review Copyrighted ©2005 Cindy Vallar
The Pirate Round
By James L. Nelson
William Morrow, 2002, ISBN 0-380-80454-9, $24.95
The planters of Tidewater Virginia worry about the shrinking market for the tobacco that brings them wealth. They must ship the crop to England in a convoy because pirates prey upon their ships. If the vessels arrive in London, the planters receive less money for their tobacco because more of it is available on the market at one time. The financial toll on Thomas and Elizabeth Marlowe has brought them to the brink of ruin. Elizabeth devises a plan that might save them, as well as some of the neighboring plantations, but it requires Thomas to sail to London. Surely no one there will recognize him! For if someone does, Thomas will face the hangman's noose because he was once a pirate.
Thus begins the third installment of James L. Nelson's The Brethren of the Coast. Although Marlowe understands the risks involved with his wife's daring venture, he never expects to meet his arch nemesis, a man Marlowe thought had died long ago. Each time he thinks he's bested Roger Press, the man has the nasty habit of returning from the dead and this time he possesses a royal commission to hunt his own brethren, the pirates.
From Virginia to London to the pirate utopia of Madagascar, The Pirate Round prods the reader to turn the pages of this maritime adventure that brings to life all the horrors and pleasures associated with piracy. The story unfolds in 1706, a time between the Age of the Buccaneers and the rise of the Golden Age of Piracy. Unlike many writers who incorporate pirates into their stories, Nelson vividly portrays his pirates with refreshing realism and brutal honesty. His knowledge of sailing aboard wooden ships transports the reader back to the days of those vessels. The reader swelters under the heat of a tropical sun or prays for wind to end the boredom of being becalmed. The reader urges Marlowe on as he dares to rescue stranded seamen aboard a foundering ship during a fierce storm at sea. The reader craves the vast riches that draw honest seamen to the Indian Ocean to pillage the treasure-laden ships of the moguls.Nelson is a gifted seanchaidh, a master storyteller who weaves a captivating story through his magical use of words. The Pirate Round will inspire and haunt the reader long after he or she turns the last page, for dreams do come true, but sometimes at great cost. This book is a must read for anyone interested in the real pirates of yore.
Review Copyrighted ©2005 Cindy Vallar
The French PrizeBy James L. Nelson
Thomas Dunne, 2015, ISBN 978-1-250-04661-1, $26.99 / CAN $31.50
E-book ISBN 978-1-4668-4702-6, $12.99
Born into a seafaring family, Jack Biddlecomb has spent much of his young life trying to escape from his father’s shadow. He wants to be known for himself, rather than Isaac Biddlecomb’s achievements during the War of Independence and as a congressman acquainted with the young nation’s presidents. That opportunity seems finally at hand after Jack is instrumental in saving his merchant ship from French privateers. At only nineteen he becomes captain of the Abigail.
Being master means Jack must grow up and rein in his temper, which tends to get him into trouble, but his best intentions are waylaid by his nemesis, who happens to be in port at the same time. Jonah Bolingbroke challenges Jack to a duel, but Robert Oxnard, Abigail’s owner, arrives just in the nick of time to stop the duel. The whole affair, which is out of character for Bolingbroke, bothers Jack’s ‘uncle,’ Ezra Rumstick, who fears Jack may be headed for trouble. Before Ezra unearths the truth, Jack sails for Barbados to deliver his cargo. What neither knows is that the machinations behind the duel are only the tip of the iceberg.
Before they depart, Oxnard installs several cannon aboard Abigail. This irks Jack, even though he understands how they might be useful since relations with revolutionary France are strained and French privateers are attacking American vessels even though no war has been officially declared. Still, he and his men are merchant seamen not navy sailors, and their business is trade not fighting. Since his knowledge of these weapons is scant, Oxnard’s friend accompanies them to train the crew. When a French man-of-war is sighted, the presence of the guns seems fortuitous until Jack realizes the French ship is better armed. It will take all his seamanship, some providential luck, and a sharpshooter from an unexpected quarter to get Abigail and her crew out of this predicament.
Set during the Quasi-War with France (1798-1800), The French Prize is the first in a new nautical adventure series. The frequent use of back flashes to reveal episodes in Jack’s early life slows the action at first, while they also orient the reader to the characters and their associations with each other. Nelson does a wonderful job showing the impact of the French Revolution on their navy, and his sailing experience aboard wooden tall ships adds such realism the reader is transported to Abigail's decks be it during a vicious storm or while fighting for her life against a more powerful foe. Once the voyage to Barbados begins, the characters spring to life and the action increases, sometimes to a heart-racing speed that compels readers to turn the pages until a brief respite permits them to catch their breath.
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Review Copyrighted ©2015 Cindy Vallar
By James L. Nelson
Fore Topsail Press, 2016, ISBN 978-0692585450, $12.99
Also available in e-book format
The last vestiges of winter blanket Vík-lo at the opening of the fourth book in the Norsemen Saga. Thorgrim Nightwolf is lord, and soon he and his men will launch their new longships. But some of his cooped-up men spoil for action. Chief amongst them is Kjartan Thorolfson, who stages a fight with the intention of killing Thorgrim. The timely arrival of Kevin mac Lugaed interrupts Kjartan’s plans, but Thorgrim intends to deal with the traitor just as soon as the Irishman leaves.
The uneasy alliance Kevin has forged with Thorgrim allows the two peoples to coexist, but Kevin wants to be rid of all Norsemen. In doing so, he will gain more land and greater power. To initiate his plan, he proposes that Thorgrim and his men join with the Irish to raid Glendalough Fair, an annual gathering of merchants and villagers near a monastery. Both offer rich, tempting targets that are ill-defended.
Louis de Roumois chafes at being a novitiate in the monastery. He’s a soldier, who spent the past four years fighting the Danes, but his popularity with his men made his elder brother wary and jealous. Although Louis had no desire to rule Frankia, his brother exiled him to Glendalough to take holy vows. Instead, he spends more time bedding the wife of Colman mac Breanclan, the wealthiest man in town. Colman knows of the dalliance, and when a priest tasks Louis with leading the Irish in defending the village and monastery against the Norsemen, but under the nominal command of Colman, problems ensue. Further complicating Louis’s life is the fact that someone wants him dead.
Thorgrim doesn’t trust the Irish, but he agrees to Kevin’s proposal. On the morrow when they are to depart, Thorgrim discovers Kjartan and his men have taken one longship and disappeared during the night. He intends to have his day of reckoning with Kjartan, but it must wait until after the raid. On the way to where they are to meet Kevin and his men, they come across a burning village where everyone has been slain. The killing seems senseless and doesn’t set well with Thorgrim because the villagers had nothing to steal. Then Kjartan reappears and he is afraid. He claims not to know who slaughtered the Irish, but Thorgrim knows he’s lying. He learns why when they reach Kevin’s camp and discovers the Irishman has also allied with another group of Norsemen. They are led by Ottar Bloodax, who likes killing. It soon becomes evident that Ottar is untrustworthy and Kevin can’t control him. When the men of Glendalough launch a surprise attack on the encampment, Thorgrim begins to rue ever getting involved with Kevin’s scheme, but it’s too late to turn back.
Glendalough Fair is a novel of deception, betrayal, and honor. The various storylines are intricately woven, and while how they will intersect isn’t initially obvious, they come together seamlessly to realistically depict life in Ireland during the Viking Era. While the water scenes are minimal, the raid is portrayed with ingenuity that shows how much Thorgrim’s son has matured during the course of this series. Readers will gloss over the occasional misspellings or missing words*, because this riveting and gritty tale is told so vividly it unfolds in the mind’s eye like a movie playing on the big screen. Fans of Thorgrim and his men will relish this latest saga and eagerly await their fifth adventure.
*According to the author, these errors have been corrected from the early edition that I read.
Review Copyrighted ©2016 Cindy Vallar
By James L. Nelson
Fore Topsail Press, 2016, ISBN 978-1534879683, $12.99
Kindle e-book $3.99
Tantor Media, audiobook ISBN 9781515961413, $29.99
Two hundred men dead. One betrayer. One deserter. A lone longship. Guilt gnaws at Thorgrim Night Wolf, for leading his men into the bloody slaughter, and honor demands satisfaction. But revenge must wait until the ten remaining survivors of the battle at Glendalough have repaired themselves and Sea Hammer. The sheltered sandbar is a good spot to do both, even though it is far from a secure place to stay with Irish men-at-arms still hunting them. And what should be done with their two prisoners– the Frank named Louis de Roumois and an Irish woman named Failend – who asked to go with them? Why do they flee their own kind? And what’s in the small chest they hide?
Rage, confusion, and fear swirl within Lochlánn mac Ainmire. The man he most admired and trusted, Louis de Roumois, has abandoned him. Plus Louis murdered one of their soldiers, possibly killed another man, and has run away with the second man’s wife. Justice demands satisfaction, and Lochlánn is determined to see Louis doesn’t escape. If he encounters more Northmen, so much the better, so with twenty men-at-arms, he hunts them all.
After twenty-five, ragtag Irishmen step from the woods near Thorgrim, he knows his men are outnumbered and in no condition to fight again. Two men step forward – one a giant with more brawn than brains, and the other a shorter, red-haired man who whispers to his companion as if giving him advice. With only one way to win this confrontation, Thorgrim challenges the giant to a duel. Hardened by many battles and more intelligent than his opponent, he toys with the Irishman before slaying him.
Without consulting the remaining Irishmen, Cónán assumes command and prepares to depart because he’s savvy enough to abide by the rules of the challenge. But Thorgrim offers him a tempting proposition. If the Irish stay and help Thorgrim sack the monastery at Glendalough, Thorgrim will provide them with weapons and armor, as well as a share of the plunder. He might not trust these Irish bandits, but he needs them.
When Aghen Ormsson of Vik-ló first spots the returning longships, he senses no trouble. But Thorgrim isn’t with the Northmen who alight. Ottar Bloodax claims the former lord of Vik-ló is dead and declares himself the new ruler of the Viking longphort. He trusts only a handful of his men and rules by terrorizing those under him. The more Aghen learns, the more he believes Thorgrim isn’t dead and that belief is strengthened when a lone wolf appears inside the walls one night. Knowing Ottar is a superstitious man, Aghen acts on that fear. One by one Ottar’s elite corps is killed and the evidence points to the lone wolf – the shape changer Thorgrim who stalks at night.
Night Wolf, the fifth book in The Norsemen Saga, is an intricately woven tale of betrayal and revenge. Violence remains a key element of this story and the time period, yet Thorgrim, Cónán, and Aghen rely more on ingenuity and knowledge than their fighting expertise in the encounters with their enemies. This adds depth to the characters and shatters the stereotypical portrayals of Norse and Irish alike. Readers who haven’t read the previous volume, Glendalough Fair, won’t have any trouble following what happens in the aftermath of that disaster, but reading that title first may enrich the experience of Night Wolf. Like the tales of old told by an Irish seanachaidh or a Norse skald, Night Wolf lures readers into its web and holds them spellbound until the story ends.
Review Copyrighted ©2016 Cindy Vallar
By James L. Nelson
Fore Topsail Press, 2017, ISBN 978-0692880265, $12.99
Also available in e-book format
Book six of The Norsemen Saga begins with the return of Conandil, who appears in an earlier volume. No longer a thrall, she is married to an Irish chieftain’s son. When Irish raiders attack their ringfort, she and her husband, as well as others, are driven to the beach where they are beset from the sea by Norsemen. Rather than become a slave again, she fights with her husband. But one of the Vikings thwarts her desire for a quick death and she is once again bound for the slave pens in Dubh-linn. There she, her husband, and the other captives are sold to a Frisian merchant who plans to sell them at a slave market in his homeland.
Lord of Vík-ló, Thorgrim Ulfsson is sick of Ireland, the Irish, and the eternal rain that plagues the country. Most of his men, including his son Harald Broadarm and beserker Starri Deathless, imbibe liberally when confined, so once the sun finally deigns to shine, Thorgrim announces it’s time to go a-viking. As his four longships prepare to set sail, he makes the unconscious decision to take their hoard with them. He has no intention of returning. Their first capture goes precisely as planned, but the victim is known to Thorgrim and is permitted to continue on his journey. First, though, he imparts knowledge of a Frisian merchant with three ships rumored to be heavily laden with treasure. Expecting these to be easy prey, Thorgrim and his men decide to lie in wait – but no one knows better than he that the gods can be fickle and one should never tempt fate.
Irish brigands ambush a traveling friar on his way to Dubh-linn, but they soon learn the error of their ways when he turns out to be adept with a sword. Once Louis de Roumois, the Frank who betrayed Thorgrim, dispatches the trio, he discards his disguise and continues on to the Norse longphort. He seeks passage home to bring his brother to account for banishing him to Ireland and then sending assassins to kill him. Louis knows nothing about ships and the sea, but he quickly discovers the vessel’s captain is a brutal madman whose thirst for wealth includes acquiring the silver Louis hides in his belongings.
A wealthy slave trader and master of a small, but fast, fleet of ships, Brunhard of Frisia loves to hear himself talk. He’s always thinking of ways to gain the most while losing the least. Such wily thinking and a no-holds-barred approach to dealing with his cargo is why he survives in an otherwise violent and often unpredictable world.
When the Norsemen spot the Frisian ships, the chase begins. Brunhard’s out-of-the-box maneuvers earn Thorgrim’s respect because the merchant is a savvy seaman. But one trick nearly destroys Sea Hammer, earning Thorgrim’s wrath and vow to make the man pay. The pursuit becomes a heart-pumping, careening-out-of-control thrill ride that leaves readers breathless and refuses to release them from its grip until the story ends.
Raider’s Wake is a welcome return to the sea, where Thorgrim once again demonstrates why Norsemen are remembered for their expert seamanship. What makes this an unforgettable and very believable tale are Nelson’s knowledge of and experience in sailing wooden ships. The nautical language adds a healthy dose of realism, but Nelson writes in a way that readers unfamiliar with the terminology still get the gist of what the sailors are doing. For those who wish to better understand, he provides a diagram of a longship and a glossary.
Although Harald Broadarm has played important roles in previous titles, he finally comes into his own in this one. He has matured over the series and has ably demonstrated both his bravery and skill at fighting. Yet now he finds himself in a command situation where his decisions and knowledge play a vital role in determining the fates of those aboard all the vessels.
Another crucial story element is the inclusion of two Irish women, Conandil and Failend. Rather than being mere window dressing, they are well-drawn characters who play critical warrior roles and they possess the determination to influence their own fates. As a result, Thorgrim makes some keen observations about women – ones that all men could learn from.
Front first page to last, Raider’s Wake is written by a master weaver who keeps readers spellbound and places them on the longship in the midst of the Vikings. This adventure is one treasure to savor and as memorable as, or even more so, than the Norsemen’s previous stories.
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