Sarah Reviews: The Winter Isles by Antonia Senior
It opens with a boy stranded on a rock. Sea laps at the edges of this remote outcrop and the boy, sunburned and starving after four days of hoping and praying for rescue, swears loudly at a seal who is dipping and gliding about in the ruffled waters below. He is Somerled, the son of a chief, 13 years-old and unable to swim. Should he die on this rock, Somerled thinks to himself, he will leave no legacy behind. No songs. No name to skip down generations.
In twelfth-century Scotland, far removed from the courtly manners of the Lowland, the Winter Isles are riven by vicious warfare, plots and battles.
Into this hard, seafaring life is born a boy called Somerled. The son of an ageing chieftain, Somerled must prove his own worth as a warrior. He will rise to lead his men into battle and claim the title of Lord of the Isles – but what must he sacrifice to secure the glory of his name?
Although it feels lazy not to use my own words, I can’t help but think this book’s blurb gets it so perfectly right when it describes The Winter Isles as “an astonishingly vivid recreation of the savage dynastic battles of medieval Scotland; an authentic, emotional, and powerful read.” If I were to add anything, I would say this is historical fiction at its best.
Young Somerled is, of course, rescued from the rock. He returns to his clan knowing that his first task must be to learn how to swim. Gifted with both intelligence and strength Somerled soon overtakes his father as the clan’s leading warrior. It is his depth of feeling, however, that will captivate the reader. A keenness to understand the workings of his heart as much as those of his head, in a time when ‘the way of things’ was simply the dictator of life, makes Somerled so much more than we expect. The great love that he finds with the fascinating Eimhear is beautiful and tragic and complex. This was my favourite part of the book.
Each and every character within this book’s pages has a poignance to them: Ragnhild, the great beauty who has been raised to live inside her appearance and who therefore spends her days suppressing all that rages underneath; Gillecolm, the smiling soft-hearted bastard son who Somerled fails to see; and then there is Somerled’s faithful advisor and confidante, Father Padeen. These are but a few.
The battles raged by Somerled and his men are brutal and highly evocative of the time. The clan’s intricately depicted settlements, the unforgiving landscapes… every aspect of this story is injected with authenticity by the author. Her prose, which has strong poetic leanings, is simply a joy to read.