Six Captivating Nordic Stories
Updated: Aug 21, 2020
01 The Mercies
I loved The Mercies. The majority of page time is spent showing the tasks of daily life (and almost-claustrophobic interconnectedness) within a tiny, very northern Norwegian community in the early 17th century.
But there are witch hunts at hand, and dabbling in the Sami traditions of runes, poppets, or the playing of drums—or simply being a strong-willed woman helping to feed a village by manning fishing boats when the men are all lost—is enough to lead to terrible consequences.
Hargrave allows some light into the darkness and cold in the form of love, and important realizations, and some brutal justice, but ignorance and pettiness lead to other horrific and undeserved consequences.
02 Burial Rites
Burial Rites is a beautiful, haunting story inspired by the true events surrounding the last person put to death in Iceland, in 1829.
Hannah Kent’s book explores the cold, brutal winter as convicted murderer Agnes awaits her execution at a remote farm, living with the family there. They are instructed by the authorities to take her in, but they aren’t happy about it. Agnes befriends a local priest who is sympathetic to her situation, and in time it becomes clear that Agnes and her circumstances are complicated.
The landscape is vividly evoked, the characters feel faulted and real, and the story is compelling. I still think about this book from time to time, and I read it years ago.
I thought Hannah Kent skillfully captured the setting, the accused's feelings of futility in fighting back, and the panicked realization of those surrounding her that the truth might upend the events already in motion.
03 The Half-Drowned King
The Half-Drowned King by Linnea Hartsuyker is the first in a completed trilogy of the same name that links historical fiction and fantasy and is set in Viking-era Norway.
I gave this first book in the series three stars, which for me meant it had promise but didn't knock my socks off. I thought it lagged in the too-extensive discussion of military strategy and felt that the characters didn't always act in accordance with their personalities as they had been laid out by the author.
But the detail in and the early thrills and chills of the story held so much promise, and the next two books show positive reader reviews, this series may be worth your while to try. I plan to give the next book, "The Sea Queen," a go. Side note: its cover is just as gorgeously striking as this one.
04 Norwegian by Night
Sheldon Horowitz is 82 and lives with his granddaughter her husband in Oslo. He witnesses a murder and snatches his young great-grandson to flee the police and the bad guys.
Oh, how I loved Derek B. Miller's Norwegian by Night. I found myself reading it slowly so I could savor it. I only wished it were longer so I could spend more time in Sheldon's head and in his company. I adored it.
There's an unusual mix of adventure and heartwarming self-examination in this debut.
I’d forgotten that there was a second book in this series, American by Day, which I now recall that I very much want to read.
05 We, the Drowned
I own this book. Therefore I have not read it, despite wanting to, because I am a very greedy person who has too many books on her library hold list, too many prepublication books requested, and too many books she already owns languishing unread like this one. Ahem.
The reason I own We, the Drowned is that it is described as “an epic drama of adventure, courage, ruthlessness, and passion by one of Scandinavia’s most acclaimed storytellers.”
Carsten Jensen provides epic historical fiction also said to be humorous, and it includes Vikings, seafaring adventure, “nefarious company,” a town run by women, and “a mysterious shrunken head.” Plus, just look at the cover.
06 Kristin Lavransdatter
I also own this book (this is actually #1-3 of the Kristin Lavransdatter series in one book). And I also have not yet read this book. But obviously we should all read it if we haven’t already, because:
Sigrid Undset offers an epic story, first published in 1920, of historical fiction set in fourteenth-century Norway. This book clearly has staying power.
The main protagonist Kristin is a headstrong woman, and she escapes a convent for love. Check.
Finally, in this “masterwork” of "Norway's most beloved author,” Undset “immerses readers in the day-to-day life, social conventions, and political and religious undercurrents of the period.” I fully expect to adore this.
What are your favorite Nordic-set or -focused books? This category could include a lot of other titles. I think I would love the details of a Nordic setting in any genre.