Book review: Krigstid by Elisabeth Östnäs

Krigstid (Times of War) is the second instalment of YA historical-fantasy trilogy Sagan Om Turid (The Saga of Turid) set in Viking Scandinavia. The story follows the life of a young woman named Turid. Though the daughter of a king, the ‘kingdom’ is long past its glory days and she has enjoyed only modest privilege in arduous village life. From her deceased mother Turid inherited the power to cross over into the spirit world, to communicate with the dead and see shadows of past and future.

The land is being taken over by the varjager, a band of brutal warriors who destroy whole villages and leave no survivors. The book begins in the aftermath of a devastating attack on her village. Most were slain, others fled the carnage, and Turid is left alone with her träl (slave) Unna. With her home destroyed and family killed, Turid sets out on a journey across land and sea, seeking a way forward, unsure of her destination.

At the very beginning of her journey, Turid is attacked by a vicious lynx. By killing the creature and drinking its blood, Turid gains new strength and vision, absorbing the wild spirit of animal, and invoking the ferocity of the goddess Freja. Turid matures into her powers as both völva (shaman and seer) and warrior. Armed with the power of the lynx, and fuelled by despair at the loss of her village, she acquires a spear and learns how to fight and, eventually, to kill.

It is perhaps one of the most interesting points of the story, that during battle with the dreaded varjager, Turid is able to kill without remorse. As enemies, they become less than human. Turid’s allies are helped by a group of half-human hired fighters who transform into rabid beasts in battle. Turid sees no morality in these men, but she needs one of them to act as guide on her way to Ribe, to find her childhood friend and betrothed, Frode. The loyal and selfless Unna makes a deal with the man-beast, that he may use her sexually in return for his guidance. In their communication throughout the journey, Turid learns that the brute of a man is a more empathetic character than he first appears. However, in a vivid portrayal of empowerment and loss of innocence, Turid eventually slits his throat in his sleep. To Unna’s protests, Turid simply replies: “We have nearly reached Ribe. We no longer need him”.

For readers looking to be immersed in a historical world of Vikings, magic and war, Östnäs has created an enjoyably rich backdrop, with many well-researched details of landscapes, beliefs and customs. It is refreshing to experience a fleshed-out Viking world, with all of its everyday drudgery, as well as horror, humanity and beauty, especially as seen from an unsentimental female perspective. Sexual vulnerability among brutish men is an ever-present – and ever relatable – theme.

There are also a few chewy philosophical issues for YA readers, including the co-existence of humanity and barbarity, the concept of honour and ethics, “knowing one’s place” and being aware of one’s own privileges and duties. The loyalty and friendship between Turid and Unna is touching and though-provoking, and teenage girls would enjoy watching Turid’s growth from innocent girl to warrior woman. There is a smattering of romance as well as lashings of magic, battle and gore to titillate the teenage mind.

However, for older readers, or those more particular about plot, there is not always enough by way of storyline. Like many second books in trilogies, it seems over-stretched, acting as a conscious bridge between the first and third instalments. The world is rich and the premise intriguing, but the plot feels underdeveloped and there are sections of the book that feel repetitive and laboured. There is a lot to like about Östnäs’s modern, clipped prose and evocative descriptions of detailed landscapes and historical garments, tools and customs. But I find myself wondering if the trilogy shouldn’t have been condensed into one thrilling book, rather than three slightly diluted ones.

Published by Berghs förlag, 2016

Rights: Susanne Widén, Hedlund Literary Agency,