Don Coldsmith – Runestone

I love historical sagas, always have. I’m quite fond of the books by W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O’Neal Gear, and when I saw their glowing words of praise on the cover of paperback sitting on the book cart at work, well, I knew it would make a perfect poolside read.

Don Coldsmith’s Runestone (1995) offers a “theory” about how a Viking made his way to Heavener, Oklahoma in the 11th century. Heavener is the home of an inscribed stone that has been attributed to Norsemen. People don’t really know how it got there and it’s apparently pretty heavily disputed. Personally, I’d never heard of the Heavener Runestone prior to picking up the fictional saga. But I do like how something real spawns one’s imagination the way the Heavener Runestone gave birth to Coldsmith’s historical saga.

Runestone is the story of a Viking explorer, Nils Thorsson, who travels to Vinland with the excitement of adventure running rampant in his body. Two ships make the voyage, but they are attacked by a band of Indians after leaving Vinland for further exploration. The only survivors are Nils, his steersman Svenson, and a one-eyed Indian they call Odin. Odin had escaped from the band of Indians who ultimately destroyed the crew and sought refuge in the settlement. The reason the settlers allowed him in is not really explained. He stows away on Thorsson’s boat in the hopes that they bought will take him back to his people.

The three men survive the attack on wit and intelligence on Odin, a man they originally considered as beneath them – an ignorant savage. Their journey brings the men close together and the two Norsemen realize that Odin is far from a savage. The attacking band of natives pursues the three persistently – they cannot afford to have anyone escape if they want to send a strong message. They surround the three men and all hope appears lost – Nils, Svenson, and Odin have no water and will be killed if they leave the cliff they’ve become pinned in. Nils decides to go “berserk” – a Norseman’s deathsong in battle. He takes off all his clothes and begins chanting and making animal sounds. Instead of responding to his advances, the attacking band is terrified. They are convinced he must be some holy man with lots of magic. Odin jumps on this assumption and plays it to their advantage. The men are not only released, but given provisions for their journey.

The two Norsemen end up assimilating with Odin’s tribe. They take wives and start families. The conflict of wanting to return to their people shows up but it’s never really developed and when they do attempt to return (or Thorsson attempts with his family and Odin), it’s quickly over.

The first half of the novel was well-paced and exciting, but once they reach Odin’s people, the novel loses steam and becomes a bit redundant. I’ve read better historical sagas.

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