Recently, I have been looking back at many of my European History books from my high school & university days for TTRPG projects I have in the works. Among them are several books focusing on the history of Scandinavia from pre-history to the Early Modern period.
Imagine my joy then when I happened to have a tale that promised pre-Viking historical fiction enter my recommended reads. Sigird and Elyn - A Tale from Novegr has a good rating, but only a small number of reviews on Amazon/Goodbook. I also had already read one novel by Edale Lane that I found interesting, Merchants of Milan, so I wanted to give them another try.
I am not going to provide the official summary this time because I feel it is a bit spoilery, so lets go straight into the Content Warnings before we dive into my own thoughts about the story.
A list of things contained in this book that you should know about ahead of time: Violence and Death related to pillaging, warfare, and assassination; Injury to major characters; Discussions and vague descriptions of sexual relationships & acts; Use of alcohol; Sexism and bigotry related to homosexuality; References to past sexual violence done to a major character; Slavery; References to death related to childbirth; Discussions of animal sacrifice; Political intrigue and betrayal; Traditional Norse spiritual practices However, most of the violence and death is not particularly graphic in nature.
This tale from Novegr (the coast of modern Norway) set in 649 CE is a story of political intrigue, conflict, and romantic defiance in the face of social expectations. Our two titular characters are both shield-maidens of differing backgrounds, Sigrid from the nobility and Elyn the orphan of free farmers. They o find themselves on opposite ends of a brewing conflict. Their relationship is built on strong attraction and mutual respect that bridges all of those divides and helps them discover the plots driving this conflict toward a disastrous outcome for all involved.
The storyline and political intrigue are fitting for both the characters and the time period. It has decent pacing and reaches a relatively satisfying conclusion. It was quite interesting that the brains behind the conspiracy are not mustache twirling villains plotting for the sake of plotting or driven by malice and greed. Rather they have legitimate concerns that need to be addressed and the only means they felt were at their disposal were deception and asymmetrical violence.
On the historical front, Edale Lane has clearly done a lot of research. As with my previous experience with their novel Merchants of Milan, she is very good at informing the readers of how the world the characters are inhabiting is so much different from our own, especially when religion, politics, or societal norms are involved in the story. In the case of "Sigrid and Elyn," Edale also fights against extensive misinformation, propaganda, and myths in her potential audience, either confusing the setting of this late-Migration, pre-Viking story with later periods of Norse history or false 19th-20th century narratives.
However, how Edale chooses to broadcast this information I found to be off-putting enough to keep me from being fully invested. Explanations occur in dialogue to characters who would fully know and understand the concepts being discussed. Not just asides, but full lectures take place. This is, admittedly, a pet peeve of mine. There are also a number of scenes where it would have felt more satisfying for audience to realize more about the plot and setting through descriptive observation than being straight-out told what was going on, something this book actually does well in other places. Some of this may be due to my existing familiarity with this historical period.
My Final Thoughts
Overall, I would call Sigird and Elyn - A Tale from Novegr a decent story, especially if you like intrigue in you pre-modern fiction or enjoy seeing an increasing range of settings for LGTBQ+ stories. However, some of the explanations and focus on the background for our story may put some readers off.