The Winter Isles (2015): Antonia Senior


Lyrical and heartfelt, this novel set in 12th-century Scotland feels like a natural successor to King Hereafter. It occupies much the same territory, following the ambitious young lord Somerled as he negotiates the rivalries and alliances of the Western Isles and develops a name for himself as a fearless warrior. Based on a figure who is as tantalising a blend of history and myth as Macbeth himself, it’s a novel that lingers on the feel of the wild land and the yawning breadth of the playful, fearsome, lovely sea, despite the occasional savagery of its battle scenes. With characters you truly grow to care about, and with a wonderful star-crossed love story at its heart, it’s a rewarding read.

The boy Somerled is the son of a mediocre man. His father has built a modest life in his hall on Kintyre, surrounding himself with second-rate men: even his bard is inadequate. But Somerled isn’t cut from his father’s pattern. Resourceful and charismatic even as a boy, he can see the weaknesses of his father’s rule and tries to reconcile his fondness for the man with his contempt of the lord. It isn’t easy, for Somerled’s world demands strong leaders. Summer brings raiders: cattle-thieves by land and Norse or Gaels by sea, plying the whale-roads in their ship and striking at vulnerable coastal settlements. Old rivalries keep the petty kings of the Western Isles in perpetual strife and any lapse of attention can lead to disaster.

And so, one night, as Somerled’s father’s hall burns around their ears and even their modest holdings are destroyed, the young man realises that something must change. His father is no longer able – perhaps never was able – to lead. It’s time for new blood, new dreams. And Somerled, even at seventeen, dreams on a large scale. He looks north and south and west, to the lords of Man, the petty kings of Ireland and, far out in the west, the King of Alba himself. That king, David, is little more than a pawn of the English, barely even able to speak his language, bringing Norman knights to fight his battles, giving away land to Norman lords and resting his hopes for the succession on the weak and sickly Malcolm. The world is in flux, waiting for a competent man to make his mark.

Yet this isn’t just the story of a warlord rieving and rading his way to prominence. There are battles, of course, sometimes brutal and painful, but the focus throughout is on Somerled the man and on how his growing power affects him as a person. The story is told in relay by three different people: Somerled and the two women who love him and divide his life between them. I sometimes wonder at the necessity of multiple narrators, but here it works incredibly well, giving these two women a voice beyond what Somerled feels about them. So as not to spoil the story, I won’t give their names, but they have entirely distinct personalities: one vibrant, fierce, intelligent and pragmatic; the other fragile and resentful, raised to see her beauty as her only worthwhile asset. I loved one – a wonderful, rich, real woman – and pitied the other. The story passes between them like a shuttle passed on a loom, building up a multi-layered picture full of thwarted hope, compassion, bitterness and poignant regret.

I hadn’t come across Somerled before, as my knowledge of Scottish history and legend is patchy to say the least. That meant I could read the novel as a story, without anything impinging on my enjoyment, but I enjoyed the historical note that Senior added at the end to explain her choices. Helpfully, the book picks up similar themes and questions to those in Edoardo Albert’s Northumbrian Thrones series, which I’ve just finished reading: the clash between the old Norse gods and the new Christian faith; the shaping of Britain from a patchwork of petty kingdoms into a united realm; and the qualities required of a warrior lord. Chronologically, it takes up the thread mere decades after King Hereafter finishes.

I enjoyed Senior’s writing very much: it isn’t the kind of deep, meaty, immersive prose that I love best, but it has a graceful lightness, like a pebble skipping over the waves. Her dialogue feels natural without straying into anything disconcertingly modern, and her own love of the Scottish islands makes for some beautifully evocative descriptions. While this may not be the book for hardcore ‘sword and shield’ fiction readers, it’s well worth picking up if you’re interested in this period of history: not only a love song to the windswept islands and glittering seas, but a thoughtful exploration of memory, love and morality.

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3 thoughts on “The Winter Isles (2015): Antonia Senior

  1. Heloise Merlin says:

    Oh lol – I just bought this like two weeks ago and wanted to read it right away, but then put it off in favour of Manda Scott’s Boudica series. If I’d known you were about to read it, we could have done a joint reading! (Which, coming to think about it, ir probably more a threat than anything else…) I had the same association to King Hereafter, too, and am glad that the novel seems to fulfill its promise – I’m looking forward to reading it myself. 🙂

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Too bad! We could have read it together. Well, I will look forward to hearing what you think 🙂 And don’t be silly: the prospect of a joint reading with you is never a threat! More like a treat.

  2. kevinoflargs says:

    I got around to reading this book last month. An excellent historical novel covering an almost unheard of part of Scottish history.

    One the best book I’ve read in ages.

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