________________ CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 22 . . . . February 10, 2012


Under the Mound.

Cynthia Heinrichs.
Vancouver, BC: Be Read/Simply Read Books, 2011.
455 pp., hardcover, $19.95.
ISBN 978-1-897476-62-8.

Grades 6-10 / Ages 11-15.

Review by Ann Ketcheson.

*** /4



And I still had to speak to Harald. But what would I tell him? The entire story all at once or what I thought he needed to know this day? Could I tell him of my dreams and vardens? Hardly. I must sort that out myself first, for I no longer had any doubt that my dreams meant something. I glanced over at Thorir. He might be able to help. But Eyolf and Haermund and Simon were running nearby. I couldn't speak of such things in front of them.

And what should I ask him? Harald was the eagle but the boar still eluded me. He must be someone I didn't suspect, someone adept at keeping hidden. Was that not the essence of the boar, to be secretive, skulking, deadly dangerous? So I should suspect someone I was not inclined to suspect? Just once it would be very nice for something to come easily! I looked at the men trotting along before me and around me. Even if I knew which of them was the boar, did I know what he was going to do? Better, did I know what I was meant to do?

A wave of weariness passed over me, bringing doubts. It was hopeless. I sucked in a deep breath of fresh air. It was good to be outside again, above the earth rather than under it. I had survived unbelievable events. I must have faith. I would find out soon enough what I was meant to do. Of that I could be sure. I plunged on through the snow feeling moderately better.

Our shadows lengthened and faded as the sun dipped behind a hill. The day was hurrying to a close already. We'd slept the better part of it away. Only an hour or two of good light remained. Smoke rose in black smudges from the backs of hillsides where farmhouses hid. We avoided them. It was not easy to know who was a friend and who might send out a runner to reach Erlend before us and spoil our plans.
Harald's plans, I thought with relief, not Thorbjorn's. My need to speak to Harald nagged at me but he was far ahead. When we stop, I promised myself.

Malcolm mac Alasdair is only a youth when his father sends him to serve the Earl of Orkney in order to help him regain the lands his cousin has taken from him. Malcolm is not at all suited to be a warrior, nor does he understand the political intrigues which swirl around him. He is tormented by the older men who think he is weak, untrustworthy and perhaps even mad. Malcolm almost doubts himself, especially when dreams and visions force him to act in ways he would never have imagined mere weeks ago at home with his family.

      The novel is set in Scotland and Orkney during the winter of 1153. Heinrichs's descriptions help her readers feel the cold and the hunger, see a landscape which is both beautiful and terrifying, and smell a band of warriors, some Scots and some Viking, as they shelter in the mound of Orkahaugr during a violent, life-threatening snowstorm. Within this historical setting, Heinrichs weaves various tales taken from Norse mythology. Thorir the poet tells stories of Odin and the spirit world, and Malcolm's dreams mirror a mixture of both the real and the supernatural.

      Under the Mound is a saga with lots of intrigue and action as well as a large cast of characters. While Malcolm is central to the novel, readers also meet a variety of the Scots and Vikings who have set out to aid Earl Harald in his quest. They fulfill many roles: the poet, the schemer, the peace-maker, the adviser and so on. Like Malcolm, readers must judge who can be trusted. There are few female characters in the novel, but they are strong and include Margaret, mother of Earl Harald and plotter extraordinaire, and Sigrith, a young Orkney woman who proves to be both brave and intelligent.

      The quest theme is predominant in the book as the entire tale centres on Earl Harald's desire to reclaim his rightful inheritance. Equally important is Malcolm's own journey, a sort of vision quest, which takes him more and more deeply into himself and teaches him what it means to confront one's fears and overcome them. In his father's words near the beginning of the novel, "They don't call Orkney the Islands of the Boar for nothing, my son. You must be strong as a boar to survive it. If Orkney does not break you, it will make you a man". (page 23)

      Young readers who prefer a plot-driven novel will enjoy Under the Mound. It is lengthy, with perhaps more description than is necessary to move the plot to its conclusion. As well, there are more than 30 characters, many with similar names, which may be confusing for young readers. Five earls and various kings are mentioned, and this calls for close attention by the reader in order to keep everyone in place. Fortunately, Heinrichs has supplied a list of characters to help readers know who's who and has also included two maps (Scotland and Orkney) to help clarify the plot.

      For readers who like to delve into a long book and become immersed in another time and place, Under the Mound is an excellent choice.


Ann Ketcheson, a retired high school teacher-librarian and teacher of English and French, lives in Ottawa, ON.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
Hosted by the University of Manitoba.