Juliet Marillier's earlier fantasy novels - the Sevenwaters trilogy - have earned her a cult following in the US, but a rather lower profile here in Britain. It's something of a surprise, then, that Tor have chosen her new novel, Wolfskin, as their lead title for the launch of Tor UK.
Wolfskin tells the story of the Viking colonisation of the Orkneys, which is generally believed to have taken place some time before 1000 AD. There are two protagonists: Eyvind, a Viking berserker, and Nessa, a Pictish priestess. Nessa doesn't appear until Eyvind's character is well established, but after that the two viewpoints alternate and intertwine. A man, a woman, a dramatically wild setting: the ingredients for the colonial romance of your choice. But the story isn't that simple, and Juliet Marillier's blend of speculative history and fantastical elements is more effective than many attempts to portray a magical past.
Eyvind grows up in a close-knit Viking community, his sole ambition to be a Wolfskin like his brother. He befriends an outsider - Somerled, awkward younger brother of the nobleman Ulf - and ends up swearing blood-brotherhood to him. Ulf's ambition is to found a new colony on the 'Light Isles': a colony which can then be used as a stepping-stone to the riches (whether traded or raided) of the British mainland. When he sails for the islands, both Somerled and Eyvind accompany him.
Nessa, meanwhile, has been leading a blameless life as a priestess, learning the rituals and becoming more in tune with the natural forces that shape life on the islands. She observes the initial meetings between the Folk and the incomers, and shares her observations with the Christian priest Tadhg.
For a while it seems that the colony might be established peacefully. But then a terrible, apparently ritual, murder sparks violent retribution and threatens a way of life that has existed for time out of mind.
The historical element of the story is credible enough, and this would be an accomplished historical romance if there were nothing else to the story. But this is fantasy, though the magic that underpins the story is subtle rather than spectacular. Eyvind's initiation as a Wolfskin, and Nessa's rituals as priestess, are magical experiences: whether they are objectively real is a different matter. Magic isn't a tool for making things easy, or for breaking natural laws. In part, it's a belief system that is embedded in both Pictish and Viking ways of life: a significance attached to events, actions, places.
This is a novel about ties and bonds: about the natural loyalty that exists, or should exist, between kin, and the loyalty that is manufactured between a Wolfskin and his Jarl, or between blood-brothers. (There's a strong theme of brotherhood: Eyvind's love for his true brother Eirik and his blood-brother Somerled, Somerled's difficult relationship with his own brother). It explores the ways in which women gain power in a male-dominated society, and the choices each individual must make in order to live well.
Eyvind and Somerled, Tadhg and Nessa and Ulf, are all utterly credible characters, embedded in their time and their culture. Somerled is especially fascinating, a man too clever for the culture into which he's born. The meeting of Pict and Viking cultures, a dry historical event, is given a human dimension in Wolfskin's exploration of that encounter's life-changing consequences for all involved.