Author: James Erich
Publisher: Harmony Ink Press
Release: 31st May 2012
Genre: M/M (Y/A)
In Viking Age Iceland, where boys are expected to grow into strong farmers and skilled warriors, there is little place for a sickly twelve-year-old boy like Kol until he catches the eye of a seið-woman—a sorceress—and becomes her apprentice. Kol travels to the sorceress’s home, where her grandson, Thorbrand, takes Kol under his wing. Before long Kol discovers something else about himself that is different—something else that sets him apart as unmanly: Kol has fallen in love with another boy.
But the world is changing in ways that threaten those who practice the ancient arts. As Kol’s new life takes him across the Norse lands, he finds that a new religion is sweeping through them, and King Olaf Tryggvason is hunting down and executing sorcerers. When a decades-old feud forces Thorbrand to choose between Kol and his duty to his kinsman, Kol finds himself cast adrift with only the cryptic messages of an ancient goddess to guide him to his destiny—and possibly to his death.
I first spotted this book in a discussion thread on a group on Facebook where they were talking about YA fantasy. I’ve long been a fantasy reader – even back in ancient times where there was hardly any of it – and in my opinion there’s nowhere near enough with LGBTTQ protagonists and even less that is suitable for a YA or pre-teen audience. So I was predisposed to support the title even before I read the blurb and realised that it was set in Iceland and Norway at the time of the great sagas.
Sold – ca-ching!
To summarise: Kol is the son of Bjarne, a very traditional man low in the local hierarchy and so very concerned with appearances. Little dark Kol takes after his mother, is small for his age, and has ‘fainting fits’ so just doesn’t match up to his father’s somewhat limited idea of what a good son should be – a chip off the old block just like big dumb older brother Ottar. Rejected and abused by his father, Kol is adored by his mother, but she is equally under Dad’s bootheel and is only rarely able to provide the care Kol needs. However, he does derive a lot of comfort from his worship of Thorbrand, older, stronger and excellent in every way, the son of their overlord. That Kol has intelligence, talent, strength and resilience of his own is apparent both to Thorbrand and to the reader, and part of the story is to see him growing into that strength and into acceptance of who and what he is and how he can fit into their violent but strictly ordered society.
Bravery, physical hardiness and the ability to face danger without flinching were marks of a man and anyone who failed to live up to these ideals was suspect. Kol’s fits, described as very similar to epileptic seizures triggered by light flashes, disqualify him from any regular form of manhood but bring him to the attention of Alfdis, a powerful witch, who promises to teach him seiðr, the practice of magic. His fits give him access to the otherworld, where he can receive messages from the gods and other supernatural beings and she promises to teach him how to interpret these messages, but in order to learn he will have to leave his father’s house and go and live with her and Thorbrand’s family.
Taken out of the stunting shadow of his father and brother, Kol grows in power and confidence and also grows into his relationship with Thorbrand. It was very touching to see how naturally and innocently the two boys took the step from friends to lovers, a step that puts them both into danger.
The relationship is just one element of the story and would probably be enough for a short romance, but this book is so much more. It is set at the turning of the 10th and 11th centuries when the worship of the old gods was slowly giving way to Christianity. Norway fought Denmark or Sweden, kings were dispossessed, their heirs sent into exile only to raise an army and return to try to reclaim their birth right. Iceland, although far removed from the action, is affected as new kings and new gods come into power and try to make changes to their ways of life.
The history and culture of Iceland is a matter of fascination. Life was so hard and I was delighted to see that the extremes of it are depicted with some glee in the book. For instance the lack of useable timber, which means that any building project has to factor in the import of logs from Norway, by boat. In these days of readily available GPS, it’s hard to imagine the incredible bravery of men who set out on the rough seas of the north Atlantic with only the vaguest idea where they might be once they were out of sight of land.
The author has done his research but displays it with a light hand. The geography of the country – fertile volcanic soil, short growing season – the politics - Iceland has the oldest continuously serving parliament in the world as opposed to the more dictatorial rule of the main land kings – the imports, exports, trade routes and architecture are all important in the context of the story but information is imparted naturally, as a consequence of Kol needing to know something or observing something.
The descriptions are lively but are not over done, providing enough information for those not familiar with what is being described. Kol moves from the turf roofed houses of Iceland to the massive halls of the Norwegian kings. He sails on merchant vessels and on war ships. He meets magicians, warriors, poets, slaves and queens. But always he wishes to return to his beloved Thorbrand and when he does it throws them both into deeper even more personal danger.
Showing a society on the brink of huge social and religious changes, exemplified in the adventures of gentle Kol and fiery Thorbrand, I found Seidman an absorbing and very satisfying read.
About the Author
James Erich has had a passion for young adult fiction since he was a teenager himself. In his high school and college years, he was saddened to see how few positive stories with gay protagonists there were, but is delighted to see that changing. Though he has previously published adult titles under another pen name, James recently joined the ranks of YA novelists, with the publication of his first YA novel, “Seiðman.” He is openly gay and lives with his husband in the small town of Raymond, NH.