Bookworm: ‘The Real Valkyrie’ a kingly read

In the case of ‘Together We Will Go,’ you can take it with you

Terri Schlichenmeyer
Columnist

“The Real Valkyrie: The Hidden History of Viking Warrior Women”

  • By Nancy Marie Brown
  • c. 2021, St. Martin's Press
  • $29.99, $39.99 Canada; 320 pages

The prince's crown is crooked. He's not very handsome, either. The castle is cold and damp with a moat that's little more than a mud puddle, which isn't going to keep anybody away, and the throne looks like it was made for a kindergartener. Clearly, this isn't going to work at all. And in “The Real Valkyrie” by Nancy Marie Brown, the royal warriors aren't what you think they are.

“The Real Valkyrie: The Hidden History of Viking Warrior Women” by Nancy Marie Brown.

A 140-some years ago, near the Viking town of Birka, a surprisingly large grave was unearthed, along with a mystery. The remains were that of a highly-regarded Viking warrior; there were weapons surrounding the bones, as well as bits of silver thread, some game pieces, and the bones of two horses. In 2017, the grave was given the number Bj581, for identification purposes.

That was the same year when DNA tests proved that the grave was not that of a male warrior as assumed, but a female one.

Though very little can be known about the life of Bj581, Brown says that science wasn't entirely surprised at the gender of the bones. In the tenth century, when Bj581 lived, gentility wasn't the norm. Violence was, and “Fearlessness was the highest virtue” for male and female alike. Few defined gender roles were enforced except by wealth; indications are that Bj581 was raised in a well-to-do home, so her options included battle, plunder, and debauchery.

"The Real Valkyrie: The Hidden History of Viking Warrior Women" author Nancy Marie Brown.

For the purposes of story, Brown imagines this woman warrior as someone named Hervor who, because Bj581 had not been born where she died, might've been snatched and relocated by a Viking queen; children then, says Brown, were often raised by adults who weren't their parents. As a teen, Hervor might have preferred the company of “her brothers,” even assuming a male name and taking up arms, which was her choice; Brown imagines that she was a shield-maid before proving herself in battle. Hervor was fierce. She was highly intelligent. And she was revered as a leader of others – enough to merit a very fine grave.

There are, it seems, two distinct audiences for “The Real Valkyrie.”

The first will be enthralled by Norse mythology and legend that fills the cracks between author Nancy Marie Brown's base tale. Even the title word is explained in perspective: today's scholars dismiss the valkyrie as little more than the Norse version of the Easter Bunny, though Brown makes arguments otherwise.

The second audience will be happiest: Brown digs deep into Norse history and society to show readers what life might've been like for Bj581 and how science bolsters the past. In doing so, she looks at trade and commerce, gender roles, and battles as well as the dates-and-names you'd expect in a history book. There's also a touch of feminism in it.

Just one caveat: big swaths of this books are fiction, which may rankle readers who are eager to sink their teeth into a good nonfiction book. Even so, it moves a hard-to-tell story along an easier path, making “The Real Valkyrie” a kingly read.

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“Together We Will Go: A Novel”

  • By J. Michael Straczynski
  • c. 2021, Scout Press
  • $27, $36 Canada; 296 pages

You can't take it with you. That's the sad part about amassing great wealth and fine possessions: when you die, you'll leave it all behind. You exit this world with the same belongings that you have when you enter and there's nothing you can do to change that. At least, in the new book, “Together We Will Go” by J. Michael Straczynski, you don't have to do it alone.

"Together We Will Go: A Novel" by J. Michael Straczynski.

People of his parents' generation never understood. Not for lack of trying but because they couldn't, and that truth really bugged Mark Antonelli. He was pushed by uncaring parents to get a college degree – and for what? So he could pay rent, owe tens of thousands in student loans, get a dead-end job, and be miserable until the day he died? No thanks, and there had to be others like him.

And so Mark went looking for them.

Posting an ad on a national website, he sought people who'd agree to board a converted bus with him, heading to San Francisco. On arrival, they'd “ditch the driver, find an appropriate seaside cliff... then just as the sun kisses the horizon, we hit the gas and drive out of this world.”

Bon voyage, sayonara. Who was up for it?

Karen was the first to be picked up. For most of her life, she'd lived with chronic, agonizing pain. Lisa, who suffered from mental illness, was next aboard. Tyler had a life-threatening problem with his heart. Vaughn was living with a secret he could no longer bear. Shanelle had been bullied for her weight. Zeke was an addict who boarded the bus with his dying cat. Theresa and Jim were star-crossed lovers. And Theo was simply done with life.

“Together We Will Go: A Novel” author J. Michael Straczynski.

Their driver, Dylan, said they'd be there in less than a month. Mark insisted that everybody upload their thoughts to the cloud, so there'd be a record of it all. They'd end their lives, but not before Mark's real intentions became apparent, and the police were on their trail...

If you couldn't already tell, “Together We Will Go” is dark. Like, five-minutes-after-3-a.m. dark, in a story that seems almost as if author and screenplay writer J. Michael Straczynski tossed a handful of marbles on a trampoline: this character pings here, that plotline goes there and there and there, and threads bounce out.

And some just end, adding to the wry pessimism of a tale that's also snarkily hilarious, profane in the right spots, uncommonly wise, and nicely allegorical in ways will mean different things to different readers as they're pushed toward what surely must be a squirmy end. Don't squinch your eyes shut, though: keep watch on the chaos of the storytelling itself here, the exceptional characterization, and the mini-saving graces that Straczynski allows in his tale.

This isn't a book for everybody. It deals with a serious subject in the most sardonic way possible that's impossible to put down. And that's good: in the case of “Together We Will Go,” you can take it with you.

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The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books. Read past columns at marconews.com.