Born and raised in a stark, coastal village, Bera is the daughter of a Valla, the Vikings’ most powerful seers. But her mother died when she was young, leaving Bera alone with her gift, unable to control her feckless twin-spirit or understand her visions of the future.
Beset by starvation, sickness and the walking dead, the brave and defiant Bera leads her village in a perilous hunt for the Narwhal; a magical beast whose tusk is said to cure illness. But disaster strikes and her childhood friend Bjorn is slaughtered in cold blood by a rival clan. Returning with his body and no magic tusk, Bera finds she has been sold in marriage to the chieftain of the murderous clan by her disgusted father.
Shipped off to a strange new world of health and prosperity, Bera nurses her wounds and vows revenge. But there are more pressing matters at hand – not only must she learn to be a good wife, she must also gain the trust of her hostile young stepson and her new clan. And as her powers grow stronger, her visions of looming disaster become more and more ominous until she has to make the ultimate choice: Will she choose revenge? Or can she lead her people to safety before it’s too late?
The setting of The Book of Bera is beautifully evoked. I thought that Wilde successfully brought to life the settlement of Seabost that Bera is sent to, as well as the surrounding wilderness. Similarly, the harsh lifestyle that these people endure was easy to picture, and I enjoyed discovering about their way of life which is heavily influenced by Viking culture and beliefs. It’s a brutal setting – raids from rival clans are commonplace, and there is little mercy for anyone. As a result, warriors are admired above all others, and it takes a strong individual to lead the people. Even Thorvald, the most trusted advisor of Bera’s husband, who is responsible for the murder of her childhood friend.
Part of the focus of the novel surrounds what happens to the dead if they are not given proper rites, which at it’s most simplistic level involved burning the body. Those who aren’t burnt may come back as undead “Drorghers” to haunt the living (presumably this is an alternative spelling or name for Draugrs – a term which I’m more familiar with, and which seems to mean the same thing, as far as I can tell). As a Valla, it’s Bera’s role to deal with these creatures and to ensure that no harm comes to the settlement and those living there. I found that this, amongst other things, added some wonderfully dark moments to the novel, and I really enjoyed these sections which I found to be creepy and tense.
Whilst I liked the setting and the evocation of the culture, I did struggle a little with the characters, and Bera in particular. I wanted to sympathise with her situation – she lost her mother when she was young, and was left with a gift (occasionally a curse in her mind) that she can’t control or use to full effect, she loses her closest friend, and is then given away like chattel to the leader of the clan that is responsible. I found her to be rather infuriating, however – she wants to be trusted and respected, yet does nothing to earn either, and what I think was meant to come across as spirit sometimes came across to me as childish petulance. There is development and growth by the end of the novel, but the change came a little too late for me to actually want to get behind her unfortunately.
Part fantasy, part coming of age story, The Book of Bera is an inventive take on Viking culture and mythology. It will be published by Unbound on 23 March. Many thanks to Joelle Owusu at Unbound for the review copy.