Friday, April 12, 2024

Review: A Flame in the North by Lilith Saintcrow

I never really thought about it until I listened to Neil Gaiman's Norse Mythology, but there is something rather inescapable about the corpus of Norse mythology. And that is, compared to the Greek, or Egyptian canons of mythology by comparison, we don't have a lot of it. The Greek sources are stuffed full of characters, legends, variations on the tale (something I really appreciated when I listened to Stephen Fry's trilogy on Greek mythology). But Norse mythology is definitely impoverished. In fact, the basic stories you've seen even alluded to in Marvel movies and comics are a substantial fraction of the entire whole.

So we come to the matter of Lilith Saintcrow's A Flame in the North, the real subject of this piece. This book does reflect a Norse world but more, as I will get to in a bit. It's a Midgard that is, based on the evidence and hints throughout the text especially in the early going, a lot like Dark Ages¹ Scandinavia before the Viking raids. There are lots of small polities scattered across the landscape, some of them in occasional squabbling with each other. There is trade, commerce, civilization in the south. There are stories down south of black-robed monks and a "nailed God" whose worship is being preached, very different from the pantheon these folks worship and give prayer to.

But this is no historical fiction.

Meet Solveig, daughter of the local lord. She has a rare and special power, the power to command and wield the elements. But on the longest night, when she must use her power to light a bonfire, the first light to break the endless darkness, the death of a guest at the hands of her brother will send her off for a year and a day to strangers in the far north. Strangers with secrets and plans of their own.

And thus a tale is made.

Given that paucity of Norse mythology, Saintcrow infuses as much as she is able into the thoughts, minds and culture of the world Solveig inhabits. We get to see the more relatively lax South, and then see how that differs as the group she is bound to travel with heads further north. The north is less settled. One might even say it is wild.  Even with the elemental magic at her command, it all feels like Saintcrow is using what Norse mythology we have with the greater corpus of cultural knowledge of Dark Ages¹ Scandinavia to create a world where travel is dangerous, where there are secrets aplenty and settlements few, but it is a story set in an expy of our world.

Or so a reader might think. At first. But Solveig and her shieldmaiden companion Arneior soon notice that one of the travelers has pointed ears, and in due course, we, as well as Solveig, start to realize we are not quite in the story that we thought we were in. More fantastical creatures and situations start to shift the perspective. The group continues to travel north, as if literally leaving the safer and more stable south for a wilder and darker world in the north. 

This continues on, until the signs of other major influence on this story besides Norse mythology start to appear. A mention of a dreadful, defeated enemy in the north comes right away; even Solveig has heard that tale. But that enemy locked beyond the mountains of the north is not so defeated and is pressing forward on all fronts. Reference is made to humans as Secondborn to the Elder, a pointed-eared race. The Enemy (and that is exactly how they are referred to) has a variety of servants, but none more dreaded than the undead Nathlas, who number Seven, great captain in the Enemy's service. The Great Smith made a race called the dverger, Dwarves, against the will of the creator. Oh, and the Enemy has rebelled against the natural world (created by song) and mars what might have otherwise been a fine creation.

Yes, if you haven't bought the vowel now, I will state it here. It's clear that the other major influence on Saintcrow's fantasy world is, in fact, Tolkien's Silmarillion.  The world that Saintcrow has made is definitely not the Arda or the West of Tolkien's world lifted wholesale, but the resonances and inspiration are clear.

But where Saintcrow is definitely breaking new ground, and showing what one can do with these raw materials and inspirations (and using Norse mythology to make it her own world, too) is where she tells new stories for new readers with modern sensibilities. Consider the utter paucity of active female protagonists in Lord of the Rings, and the fact that The Hobbit has no female characters at all. Even the aforementioned Silmarillion does have some women of note and power, but they only stand out the more for being so few as compared to the parade of male characters.²

Instead, in A Flame in the North, by centering the action right on Solveig, an elementalist, yes, but a human, and on Arneior, Saintcrow helps move away from that male-dominated focus and instead allow her female characters to shine and show agency. Even if you look at Tolkien's Galadriel and Luthien², two of the most powerful and great characters in the Silmarillion and Lord of the Rings, they are still very much suffering from the "Smurfette Principle."  And, even given the Lord of the Rings TV show, they really aren't the center of their own stories. Sol and Arn, by contrast, firmly counter that narrative and provide that women can be the center and central characters in a story that borrows from Norse mythology and Tolkien alike.  It is a reclamation of some very heavy male-dominated fiction and story, and uses it to create something for a wider swath of readers.

The novel does echo with the voice and feel of a Norse edda, or epic. It's not quite as mannered as that, but the cadence and asides from Sol show that she knows quickly that she is not just on a journey to some northern holding, but she is in fact helping to make a legend, a myth, a saga, a story. The novel is entirely from her point of view. Arn is her loyal and unwavering companion, she is relatively straightforward and pugnacious, always ready for battle. Solveig on the other hand is the contemplative one, the thinking one, giving us the opportunity to reflect on what is happening, why it is happening, and the mythic nature of it all. 

The novel ends at a stopping point that really isn't much of an off-ramp. Solveig and her shieldmaiden are now at a hidden city (clearly inspired by THE hidden city of which all others are but shadows in Tolkien fiction). Said city, and now Sol and Arn, are in opposition to the Enemy, but her full role in events and what is to come is not entirely clear. We do have hints though, from some of the chapter openings (that, again, contextualize that Sol's story does indeed live on as a saga), and from Sol herself, that there is not going to be a happy ending to this story. But, especially given the powerful material Saintcrow is being inspired by and making her own, I am very well interested in where Sol's story takes her.


  • A love letter to Norse mythology and Tolkien in one epic package
  • Reclaims and claims the above both with strong female characters
  • Lyrically and on a line level exciting and enthralling to read
Reference: Saintcrow, Lilith, A Flame in the North (Black Land's Bane, 1), Orbit, 2024

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I'm just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.

¹ Whether or not the Dark Ages were dark at all, is a whole other kettle of fish. C.f. David Perry and Matt Gabriele's The Bright Ages.

² There does appear to be a Luthien analogue in this verse, Luthielle, and like Luthien, she has a very good dog, named Bjornwulf here.