Square Sails and Dragons is a historical novel by American author Celia Lund set in an Icelandic settlement in Greenland around the year 1000 AD, featuring both fictional and historical characters on a voyage to Norway.
These characters include Eric the Red, who founded the Greenlandic settlement and after whom one of its fjords is named, and his son, Leif “the lucky” Ericsson, the first European to set foot on the American continent, legend has it. He is commemorated with a statue in front of the Reykjavík landmark church, Hallgrímskirkja.
While Square Sails and Dragons, Lund’s debut, appeared in 2005, its sequel, New Harbors New Hopes, which is set in North America, was published this year. This is a review of the first book.
Straight out, let me say that I enjoyed it. I’m a big fan of historical novels and generally, the further back in time they take me, the more I’m caught up in the story.
As a debut, it is very good, and I take my hat off to Lund for having realized her dream of publishing a novel after retirement.
Lund dedicates the book to her late husband and in the acknowledgements she also addresses her children and grandchildren: “you probably expected memoirs, but thanks for never questioning which drummer Grandma might follow next,” she humorously notes. Indeed, both humor and enthusiasm can be sensed in the book.
Authenticity is key to writing good historical novels. That is not to say they should be stripped down to dry facts and figures—fiction is important to add meat to the bones and make the story come alive—but it should be based on thorough research to harmonize with history and should at least feel authentic.
Of course, how authentic something feels depends on how well readers are familiar with the subject matter. The overall context of the story seemed fairly authentic to me, especially the details surrounding the build and mechanism of the Viking ship. Lund did a good job in placing me onboard that knarr.
The characters were also vivid and likeable, especially that of the main character, the stowaway Terje Gundersson. An independent and adventurous young man, he doesn’t take no for an answer yet manages to make friends with most of the unruly seamen who reject him at first, most notably with the ship’s commander, Leif Ericsson.
But I’m sorry to say that the naming of the characters was an absolute linguistic mess and it bothered me so that it stole away much of the joy of reading.
Take the protagonist as an example. I’m no expert but I take Terje to be a modern Norwegian name, which I doubt would have existed in that form at the time the novel is set. Neither is Gunder, which I assume is an Anglicized version of Gunnar.
I’d let the commonly used Anglicized versions of Leifur (Leif) and Eiríkur (Eric) slide but Norwegian versions of Biblical names like Jon and Per are hardly fitting for pagans.
I cannot imagine Bardal having been used as a first name in the Norse settlement in Greenland. It sounds more like a family name adopted by people who derive from the valley Bárdardalur named after a settler called Bárdur—which is an actual name.
Speaking of surnames, at the time patronymics were used (as they still are in Iceland), and so all surnames of men should have the ending –son and all surnames of women the ending –dóttir. I doubt people would have referred to each other by surname alone.
There were no family names like Terssen, I dare say, which must be an Anglicized version of an Icelandic patronymic which may have been adopted by an Icelandic immigrant to North America at the turn of the 20th century.
Linguistic misunderstanding also seems to have led to the surname of the first known discoverer of the European mainland, Bjarni Herjólfsson, to be spelled Hergolfsson.
There are many more examples of names that bothered me but I’ll stop here. Let me just say that I don’t think it would take a lot of effort to confirm whether names that sound Old Norse actually are Old Norse, and I sincerely encourage the author, or her editor, to do so before publishing the next novel.
Apart from this, the storyline kept me interested, taking the voyagers from Greenland by accident to the Hebrides and onwards to Norway. Characters make friends and foes, fall in love and are left heartbroken.
One of the deepest and most interesting characters is that of King Olaf Tryggvason, while Thorgunna, the chieftain’s daughter on the Hebrides, is the most mysterious and intriguing—I would have liked some elaboration on her personality and Celtic influences.
The plot was particularly exciting towards the end and didn’t really wind down but rather led up to the sequel. It felt as if there was more to come; there was no real closure to the love stories, for example.
However, the excitement wasn’t especially intense, in the sense that it was neither terribly violent nor passionate. That isn’t a flaw, but made the book read more like an adventure for teenagers that adults might also enjoy rather than a novel targeted exclusively at adults.
I have a suspicion that the sequel may be more intense; at least that’s what the description on the back cover indicates. I am keen to find out.
I recommend Square Sails and Dragons to all avid readers of historical novels and those interested in Norse history in particular—the things that bothered me may feel authentic enough to others.
Square Sails and Dragons and New Harbors New Hopes are available on amazon.com.
Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir