Book Review: People of the Songtrail
by W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O’Neal Gear
It would take a pitiless heart indeed not to quail when learning that the new novel by W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O’Neal Gear, People of the Song Trail, is the twenty-third installment in their “North America’s Forgotten Past” series, but it’s true: the series began with People of the Wolf back in 1990. Ever since then, at the rate of one and sometimes two books a year, our authors have been telling stories – sometimes at many hundreds of pages per installment – of lost or forgotten epochs and peoples from New World history. These stories have always been archeologically impeccable, but that’s often come at the expense of other and perhaps more vital elements of storytelling. “North America’s Forgotten Past” has often plodded.
Not so this latest book, People of the Song Trail. It’s the story of the interactions between the “people of the Songtrail,” the native inhabitants of northeastern Canada, and a wave of Viking settlers fleeing the deadly political turmoil of Europe in AD 1002, and as in all the previous books by this writing team, the underpinning elements of the book’s plot are all buttressed by current archeological research. But the dramatic overlay of all those facts is here much more effective – much more human – than has often been seen in this series. The Gears vividly bring to life not only the natives befuddled by these alien invaders, and, in a somewhat new wrinkle, they likewise bring to life the alien invaders themselves, these outcast Vikings searching for sanctuary in quasi-mythical Vinland. Most vividly realized of these characters is the slave girl Thyra, the book’s most successful creation, a daughter searching for her mother and a young sorceress of Norse magic. She’s both frightened and intrigued by the new world opening before her:
They’d called her an odd child, for she’d seen and heard many curious things as she’d grown up. The strange stories of Vinland had fascinated her most of all. Some said it was inhabited by giants and dwarfs, even by trolls: little people who lived underground and ha no iron at all. They made arrowheads of walrus tusk and used sharp stones for knives. Other stories claimed they had great prophets, shamans with only one hip bone, who could changes shape at will and fly to the stars, or just as easily swim to the underworld of the dead.
Her fellow voyagers from the East (the Vikings and their slaves and persecutors and hangers-on are far more charismatic overall than the People of the book’s title, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles sometimes) are equally interesting, and our authors do a lively job infusing their dialogue with a modern cadence that hasn’t been common in their earlier novels:
The hooded man’s jaw clenched. “You’re telling me that we just hired an outright murderer because he’s a good sailor?”
Uhtred gave him a grim smile. “Partly. Gunnar’s greatest asset, however, is that he can be bought. Most men in similar circumstances would eventually yield to their conscience or patriotism, or any other justification that allowed them to weasel out of the agreement. I assure you, Gunnar the Skoggangur has no conscience or sense of loyalty, except to his family, or that which he sells to the highest bidder.”
There’s a good deal of well-wrought interactions between these two groups, and although the book has a very delectable, strutting villain, the book’s plot lines try to harmonize toward a note of hope and cooperation. It’s a very satisfying reading experience – a winning entry in this venerable series.