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