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The Winter Isles by Antonia Senior

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The Winter Isles by Antonia Senior

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: A wonderful historical fiction introduction to Somerled, a 12th-century Scottish warlord and hero. Action-packed and yet told with an underlying sensitivity, authenticity and with a definite Celtic atmosphere, this is literary magic.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 348 Date: November 2015
Publisher: Corvus
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1782396581

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Scotland 1122: A son is born to a warlord on the Scottish Islands. The warlord GilleBride, is a man who doesn't realise his glory is receding. One day the realisation does hit him, along with a Viking raid. In the heat of invasion his son, although only 15, must take over. Can a lad actually lead a people? History will tell and legend will embellish for that boy is Somerled and this is his story.

Antonia Senior visits the Scottish Isles frequently as it's the land of her husband's origins and distilling whisky barrel. Gradually over the years the history of the area has left its impression on her, so if you consider the freelance journalist's gift for historical fiction (as shown in her first novel Treason's Daughter) this, second novel, is the inevitable outpouring.

We've heard of at least one or two of the monarchs who ruled England from 1122 until 1164. (Henry I, Stephen of Blois, Matilda and Henry II and yes, I looked them up!) However, few of us on the English side of the border have heard of their Scottish counterparts (for the record Alexander I, David I and Malcolm IV) and I definitely had never heard of Somerled whose lifespan the two dates straddle. Antonia corrects this deficiency with a heady can't put down mixture of bloody action and, a touch of romance (in all its definitions) while maintaining a sense of time and Celtic place.

Antonia treats us to point of view chapters packed with passion – political, violent and love – that will appeal to all genders. The love story between the teen Somerled and his 'Little Otter' Eimhear isn't over the top in any aspect or anything for men to wince at; it's a part of their life alongside other interesting lifestyle facets. For instance did you know that war and inter-tribal raids weren't just to gain more land and greater kudos, they're a way of preventing boredom and making sure the men are in tip top condition?

Somerled's quick brain takes him through the ranks on an accelerated learning curve to end them all. One thing he learns pretty quickly is that leadership isn't just about raids, he also has to keep his people together mentally and physically against sundry challenges, human and natural. It also means that he has to make decisions for the good of the many and, in some cases, to the detriment of himself and those he loves.

We also learn about the woman's life in the clans. While in many respects we realise from the era that the women's fate was at the whim of their men, we see there are ways and means of attempting a power balance. Unfortunately, it's not always successful and politics can sometimes dictate its own direction.

The historical factoids are satisfyingly seeded throughout the story. For instance, you've heard of the Scottish icon Robert the Bruce, the spider watching chap? Well, he was actually French! It's also interesting to see Christianity sitting alongside their ancient Norse religion. Not only were both religions tolerated, at least locally, mixing and matching where it was deemed appropriate was an accepted necessity.

Whether you want to fill in the gaps in your historical education or just fancy a good yarn, this is the book. It not only fulfils both functions, it's lyricism and totally absorbing population leaves us with the urge to find out more. Whether you enjoy it with a dram or not is completely optional but I'm guessing you will enjoy it.

(Huge thanks to the folk at Corvus for providing us with a copy for review. We also have a review of The Tyrant's Shadow by Antonia Senior.)

Further Reading: If this appeals and you'd like to read more of Scotland's past, we also highly recommend Corrag by Susan Fletcher.

Booklists.jpg The Winter Isles by Antonia Senior is in the Top Ten Historical Fiction Books of 2015.

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