Book Review: Kin by Snorri Kristjansson
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Mystery, Historical Fiction
Series: Book 1 of Helga Finnsdottir
Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books (March 8, 2018)
Length: 352 pages
I’ve wanted to read Snorri Kristjansson for a while, and I’ve had his Valhalla Saga on my reading list ever since I first heard it described as a Viking historical fantasy replete with longships plowing the glorious waves and lots of bloody axe battles. So when I found out about Kin, the first book of his Helga Finnsdottir series, I was a little surprised at the departure. No epic clashes on the battlefield here, nor bloodstained tales of Vikings burning, raiding, and pillaging their enemies. Instead, what we get is this rather moody and domestic little murder mystery taking place on a quiet 10th century Icelandic homestead, and well, I can’t say I’ve ever read anything of its kind before. It’s undoubtedly an unusual direction to take when it comes to the topic of Vikings, but I can’t say it wasn’t interesting or refreshing. In fact, I had a very good time with the novel and found it to be a fun and engaging read.
At the center of Kin is a somewhat dysfunctional family headed by retired Viking warlord Unnthor Reginsson. He and his wife Hildigunnar have four grown children who have left home and are establishing their own lives and families, but they have also adopted a girl named Helga who still lives with them. Along with Unnthor’s right hand man Jaki and his son Einar, Helga helps out around the farm. On any average day, it is just the five of them, but very soon, things are about to get a lot more crowded and busy. Unnthor has invited his children back for a reunion, and the book begins as, one by one, they arrive at the farm with their families.
First is eldest son Karl, who is short-tempered and aggressive, arriving with his wife Agla and their teenaged daughter Gytha. Then there’s second son Bjorn, who is a giant of a man but much less volatile than his older brother, though the two of them have never gotten along. Bjorn and his wife Thyri have a son, Volund, whom they believe to be a bit simple-minded. Next is clever and feisty Jorunn, Unnthor and Hildigunnar’s only daughter by birth. She arrives with her husband Sigmar, a Swede and hence viewed by the rest of the family as an outsider. And last but not least is youngest son Aslak, considered the meekest of the siblings, who arrives with his thorny wife Runa and their two little children Bragi and Sigrun.
At first, the house is full of cheer and joy with the family all under one roof again, but unfortunately the mood doesn’t last. Soon, bitter resentment and old rivalries are brought to light again, causing plenty of tension and fighting. Karl is confrontational with his crude and offensive ways, and Bjorn, ever competitive with his brother, was never one to let him get away with it. Jorunn and Sigmar are crafty and manipulative, keeping mostly to themselves. Aslak, who just wants to build a happy home is nonetheless unhappy with his family’s situation. And in the middle of this is Helga, watching Unnthor and Hildigunnar trying in vain to settle their children and smooth over conflicts. As if that weren’t enough, all of them have also heard of rumors that their father is sitting on a big hoard of hidden treasure, and each one wants a piece of it. It’s only a matter of time until this uneasy situation boils over, and sure enough, one morning Helga is awoken by a terrified scream to discover one of the family members dead, murdered in the night.
It’s true there are a lot of characters to keep track of, but if you enjoy family drama, then this will be your type of book. I suppose that’s what drew me in. This isn’t a fast-paced story by any means and there’s not much action to speak of, and yet I found myself hanging on every word. First of all, throw all your preconceived notions about family reunions out the window—this isn’t going to be anything like you expect. It isn’t a gathering full of laughter or happy tears from seeing your kin again after so many years apart. In contrast, they’re all ready to jump down each other’s throats at the slightest provocation, and keeping an eye out to take advantage of any signs of weakness. In fact, it’s crossed my mind to wonder if anyone in this strange little family actually like one another. The time and place of this novel is a whole different world from what we know, so don’t be expecting the characters to fall into conventional family roles or for any of them to act in a certain way, because chances are, you’ll be surprised. And this feeling of not being able to predict anything is what kept me turning the pages.
In many ways, a book like Kin shouldn’t have worked for me, but it did. Kristjansson presents a very strong sense of place and the atmosphere is underscored by the isolation of the setting. While there are a limited number of suspects, the narrative is no less intense or troubling because we know it had to be someone in the family—and kin or not, the justice meted out will be swift and merciless. I also loved the prose as it is very readable and easy to get into, and trust me, you’ll appreciate that you won’t have to struggle with the writing style once you realize how many characters there are to keep track of, not to mention all the possible motives.
All things considered, I’m glad I finally got to read Kin. The author’s unique handling of Vikings was a pleasant surprise for me, and I found I greatly enjoyed the story’s compelling blend of historical fiction and crime mystery, so if you’re a fan of these genres you should take a look. As the novel’s protagonist, Helga Finnsdottir was a joy to follow and I look forward to seeing her again in the series’ next book, Council.