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The Real Valkyrie

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I was thinking that this would be an amazing historical fiction about a very strong woman in a man's world.

Well it was - but less historical fiction than just plain history book.  

Just not what I thought.
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The Real Valkyrie: The Hidden History of Viking Warrior Women by Nancy Marie Brown is currently scheduled forrelease on August 31 2021. In 2017, DNA tests revealed to the collective shock of many scholars that a Viking warrior in a high-status grave in Birka, Sweden was actually a woman. The Real Valkyrie weaves together archaeology, history, and literature to imagine her life and times, showing that Viking women had more power and agency than historians have imagined. Brown uses science to link the Birka warrior, whom she names Hervor, to Viking trading towns and to their great trade route east to Byzantium and beyond. She imagines her life intersecting with larger-than-life but real women, including Queen Gunnhild Mother-of-Kings, the Viking leader known as The Red Girl, and Queen Olga of Kyiv. Hervor’s short, dramatic life shows that much of what we have taken as truth about women in the Viking Age is based not on data, but on nineteenth-century Victorian biases. Rather than holding the household keys, Viking women in history, law, saga, poetry, and myth carry weapons. These women brag, “As heroes we were widely known—with keen spears we cut blood from bone.” In this compelling narrative Brown brings the world of those valkyries and shield-maids to vivid life.

The Real Valkyrie is a thought provoking and engaging read that grabbed my interest on the first few pages and would not let go. The exploration of the known history, texts, and archaeological findings takes a deeper look at the lives of viking women, especially the possibilities surrounding the remains of one female viking warrior. Science and a more well rounded look at our history acknowledges how the mores and ideals of Victorian society has skewed the perception of viking lives. The writing is engaging and holds the readers interest, and I found the subject matter to be handled expertly and with passion. I highly recommend this read for anyone interested in the subject matter, and for readers that want to explore how preconceived notions and ideas can hindering understanding other cultures both past and present. I am excited to explore the author's recommendations for further reading on the subject and appreciate the endpages content with proper citations and useful information. 

The Real Valkyrie is a thoroughly researched and well written book.
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In 1889 in Birka, Sweden, archaeologist Hjalmar Stolpe documented the grave of a highly-ranked warrior of tenth-century Norse society who had been buried with weapons, silk garments, and two horses among other things. For more than a century, it was assumed that the person in the grave (designated Bj 581) was male. A 2017 report refuted this assumption, stating that a DNA test confirmed that the person in grave Bj 581 was female. This had the potential to turn the modern understanding of Viking Age culture upside down and led to significant controversy. Some historians refused to believe that a woman could be a warrior and declared that the grave goods were merely symbols of honor, and had not been used by the woman during her lifetime. Others stated that if male skeletons buried with weapons were called warriors, then the same logic applied to female skeletons, too. The woman in Bj 581 was tall for the time, and analysis showed that she had been healthy up to her death. The weapons showed signs of use, and so were likely not merely ceremonial objects.

What does this mean for our understanding of the Vikings? It’s hard to say for sure. There are many ways to read the information we have about the woman in this grave. In her new book, The Real Valkyrie: The Hidden History of Viking Warrior Women, Nancy Marie Brown imagines a possible life for this woman, who she names Hervor after the heroine of the twelfth-century saga, The Saga of Hervor and Heidrik. As she follows her imagined Hervor through her life, Brown discusses a wide range of people and topics: Gunnhild mother of kings, weaving, blacksmithing, the economic impact of slavery on the Norse culture, certain fashions, and weaponry. Among others.

The effect that this collection of topics has on a relatively slim history book (nearly twenty percent of its 336 pages is given over to notes and bibliographies) is to give The Real Valkyrie the feeling that it is a very glancing overview. There isn’t enough room to give any one topic a significant page count. To do so would make the narrative feel as though it had gotten stuck dealing with a pet topic that refused to let the book continue at its quick pace. And while a quick pace may work well for a mystery novel, it’s perhaps not the most desirable trait for a nonfiction book about history. There are almost too many topics addressed, and while it is important to remember the value of so-called “women’s work” such as spinning or weaving to all eras of history, a long discussion of weaving methods– that Brown suggests would have been outside of her Hervor’s interests and experience– feels a little out of place, though if the whole book had been longer with more pages devoted to each topic, the examination of the topics historically regarded as “feminine” would have flowed more naturally into examinations of the more “masculine” topics.

Still, there is a lot to both learn and enjoy in The Real Valkyrie. As historical narratives widen to include a broader scope of human experience, it’s important to look back and consider that our understanding of history– especially the historical narratives we in the West have inherited from the Victorians– may be entirely wrong. Human beings are complicated now, and they always have been, so a view of history that tries to put every person into a tidy little box neglects the messy and complicated natures of humans. And if we refuse to acknowledge our messy history, it makes it easier to disregard the complexities of the present and future.

Is Brown’s imaginary life of Hervor an unlikely one, given that she meets a series of legendary tenth century-women? Perhaps. But Brown makes sure to point out that Hervor’s story is mere conjecture based on limited information. It’s an intriguing story, though, and it takes the reader across a wide swath of the tenth century Viking world, from Ireland in the west to Russia in the east while introducing us to real historical figures such as Eirik Bloodaxe and his notorious wife Gunnhild, called Mother of Kings.

With its discussion of women’s places in the Viking era, The Real Valkyrie helps to expand upon an ongoing conversation (or fiery debate, in some circles) about current preconceptions of the roles of men and women in Medieval Europe. As more graves are analyzed and with more skeletal remains being sexed with the aid of DNA scans, we’re going to find that the people of the Viking age were more complicated than we give them credit for today. Our views of these men and women will have to grow more nuanced, and books like The Real Valkyrie will help readers begin to navigate the new research– and the new views– about people who have fascinated us for a millennium.


Thank you to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for providing me with a free ebook in exchange for an honest review. This did not affect my opinion.
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Author and former Penn State University science writer Nancy Marie Brown has created a work the blends historical fiction with archaeological evidence. She tells the tale of a high status Viking who, until 2017, was broadly assumed to be a man. DNA evidence revealed the barrow occupant to be a woman, upsetting the male dominated apple cart of archaeology. 

She pairs a history lesson with a fictional female character; the imagined life of a Viking woman, based on the actual remains and accoutrements found with her body. Using this character, Brown educates the reader on life in Viking society and posits her theory regarding the roles of Viking women within it.

I rate this book 3.5 stars. While it was an interesting read, it was broken a bit due to the style of the telling. There was nothing I really disliked about it, but nothing truly gripped me, either. Still, I thought it an above average read. 

My gratitude to St. Martin’s Press via Netgalley. I have only expressed my own thoughts in this review.
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I was very excited to receive an eCopy of this book to read via netgalley. I had no idea the heft of the book I would be receiving and sadly I was unable to finish it in the allotted time because of pressing life events I couldn't avoid so I could read. I plan to order a physical copy of it when I can so I can finish reading it.
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DNA results proving that the Viking warrior inhabiting a grave was a woman changed everything we understood about Vikings.  Brown has written a fascinating and accessible look at the culture, ranging from religion to funeral practices to warrior activity and to the roles of women.  She names the warrior Hervor and creates an imagined life for her.  Norse legends and songs provide more information that counters what was assumed about Vikings, largely because the values and roles assumed in other cultures were presumed to hold here as well   Thanks to Netgalley for the ARC.  Excellent read.
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In 2017, many scholars and historians were shocked when DNA tests revealed that the Viking warrior buried in a grave indicative of high community standing was not a man but a woman. This book combines history, archaeology and the author's literary license to imagine the life of the Birka warrior she has named Hervor. 

I've been fascinated by both strong women and the Vikings for a long time, so this book sounded like a perfect fit and I really looked forward to reading it. While it was fascinating to learn so many aspects of Viking life and how the author imagines this particular woman fit into that culture, I was disappointed by how much of the book was devoted to what appears to be the author's conjecture, rather than being based on scientific facts and data. Yes, I realize there's no way to know for sure how daily life really was in the time of the Vikings, but for me, there was too much speculation and drama in the book. It was well written, so I'm sure there are readers who will love it – it just didn't fit that particular bill for me.
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In The Real Valkyrie, Nancy Marie Brown has masterfully blended vivid storytelling with well-researched historical insights to create a nonfiction experience that feels wholly unique as we follow the path of warrior women throughout several centuries of Viking exploration, trade, and conflict.

By using a wealth of historical research and insight to bolster a fictionalized story for the warrior woman buried at Birka, Brown is able to explore - with the reader as her guest - the possibilities of womanhood during the Viking Age. In so doing, she is able to strip back the patriarchal assertions laid over this era like a shroud by later writers. Brown is always careful to note where she pulls her descriptions, her assertions, and her ideas from, and the end result is a deeper understanding of the complexities of Viking society.

Hervor's tale as Brown has chosen to construct it is compelling, done justice by the feminist lends that has allowed Brown to pick through millennia of Christianized sources. Also noteworthy is Brown's immensely approachable style. While many historians, by the very nature of being in love with what they study, have a tendency to share every detail and lose there reader in the process, Brown has struck the perfect balance, ensuring her readers can follow her at every turn. The end result? A Clear yet expansive understanding of the Viking age.
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DNF at 45%

I was SO excited to get approved for this ARC — I never request nonfiction books on NetGalley, but as soon as I saw a female-centric history of the Norse, I had to have it. 

But then I started reading and …. Phew. 

The author picked an unmarked grave that contained a female skeleton and elaborate grave goods, which indicated this was a buried warrior. She then imagined what this warrior’s life would have been like. 

Which works, in theory. 

In practice, though? It didn’t work for me. 

Each chapter began with several pages of narrative retelling of Norse sagas, inserting this theoretical warrior into them. Fully half of each chapter is then spent saying, “no it is possible my semi-made up lady was there,” and then the remaining half is finally telling actual information about the Norse. 

I just feel like I was reading a LOT of speculation, and very few passages that actually felt like I was learning about real-life vikings. (Yes, I know that so much of Norse history is speculating and assuming based on sagas and grave findings, but this leaned SO far into speculation that none of it felt real, none of it felt like nonfiction.) 

And then, there was one passage that just INFURIATED me: 

The entire conceit of the book is that our modern understanding of the Vikings/Norse was shaped first by Christian chroniclers’ misogyny and then by strict Victorian gender roles of early historians. So historians would do things like assume any grave with a weapon belonged to a man, said mentions of female warriors were myth but similarly exaggerated mentions of male warriors were metaphor, etc. 

This book is trying to challenge a lot of those assumptions, and pretty explicitly says it’s going to err the other way — take mentions of female power at face value, assume they had rights and opportunities until told otherwise, etc. Which is a pretty cool idea! And up until about 35% was working for me. 

But then this morning I read a section about a Swedish leader who was assigned female at birth. This leader was elected king (not queen), used a male name, and insisted on male pronouns. 

The book — which, remember, is supposedly all about challenging the assumptions and norms we project on ancient people — does not even mention or entertain the idea that this person might not be cis. It uses exclusively female pronouns, except when directly quoting sagas that used male pronouns. It only uses the female form of the name, not even telling us what the male form is (which is what this ruler went by!). It even says something about how they “symbolically changed their sex” when this leader had a meeting with their father and the saga switched from male back to female pronouns. 

It just feels like this book is completely undercutting it’s explicitly stated mission. Like, we’re going to assume that the Victorians were projecting strict gender roles back on them, but won’t even consider that it’s actively projecting a modern assumption of gender identity onto this ruler? 

An advanced copy of this book was provided by NetGalley; this review was left voluntarily.
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The information is fascinating but it is diluted by cutaways to imagined scenarios. I found them distracting rather than illuminating. I did write a full review of this title but I did highlight it on my site.
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Viking warrior women is a history genre that I did not know that needed to read from before this book.
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Thank you to St. Martin's Press and NetGalley for an advanced reader copy in exchange for an honest review. I feel bad even writing this, but I couldn't finish this book. That is not to say it is not a good book! I think it is going to be positively received by many (it already is), but I couldn't do it right now. 

The Real Valkyrie is a blend of extensive historical research and speculative fiction on the lives of Viking women. I love speculative fiction (I study historical imagination!), and Brown has done the work. While this book does not require the reader to know much about Viking histories, it will (obviously) help them to have decent interest in the geographies, relationships, and geopolitics of Vikings to want to follow along the story. Brown weaves snippets of Viking sagas and histories together to craft a "what could have been" for readers of this time period. However, at times it felt a bit like reading the genealogy of Abraham in Genesis "and this person begat this person who begat this person who traveled here and married this person etc etc." One of the strengths is getting to read the sagas and Brown's rhetorical criticism and historiographical analysis. As soon as it leads into more rote historical work is where I couldn't keep reading.
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This is a review of the NetGalley copy...

In the opening of this book, Brown warns the reader that The Real Valkyrie will make contentions that contradict some of her earlier works. What follows is both a new history of women's roles in Viking society, which in and of itself is tremendously compelling, and a fictionalized narrative history of what one particular Viking woman's (who's bones are literally there in the room with Brown during her writing) life might have been. I love it when new findings come along and writers have the guts to share them, even if they upset the established model--and even if those findings contradict their own previous writings.

I've talked about this book with a number of people now. It's a paradigm buster; not only for our understanding of old Norse culture, but of archeology in general. Highly recommended.

#TheRealValkyrie #NetGalley
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The Real Valkyrie: The Hidden History of Viking Warrior Women, written by Nancy Marie Brown, is precisely what the title promises to be. This is a historical exploration of Viking women, and it is such a fascinating read.

There are many reasons why I treasured this novel, not least of which is the inspiration for it all. Remember in 2017 when DNA proved that the Birka warrior was female – the one that everyone had just assumed to be male?

This book takes a look at that Birka warrior's life, using actual evidence to try and picture what her life would have been like. Best of all – Nancy Marie Brown does so by giving this woman of history more agency than most history books would ever dare to do.

"In 2017, DNA tests revealed to the collective shock of many scholars that a Viking warrior in a high-status grave in Birka, Sweden was actually a woman."

I distinctly remember when the news hit about this discovery. It caused an uproar among specific communities. Meanwhile, I personally felt a certain level of satisfaction. That woman must have been someone impressive, and I'd like to think she's feeling a little smug now that we're finally starting to understand her better.

It was fascinating reading The Real Valkyrie, as this book is neither wholly historical nor fictional. It's a merger of the two, one that I hadn't anticipated. Yet I really enjoyed the balance and Nancy Marie Brown's image of the Viking woman.
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Very interesting and well researched book which lets be honest, now really makes me want to watch Vikings. I love and fully agree with many archeological indications that the Viking society was a hell of a lot more egalitarian than common, sexist history has recorded. Also having been born in Ukraine, it was a lovely surprise to read a whole chapter or two about the Viking roots of my birthplace, one major annoyance: no illustrations in the review copy even though their listing is included. It’s like a tease that never goes anywhere.
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I received an advance reading copy of this book from in return for a fair review. 'Valkyrie' by definition means: Any of a group of maidens (in Norse mythology) who served the god Odin and were sent by him to the battlefields to choose the slain who were worthy of a place in Valhalla. Author Nancy Marie Brown is definitely an expert on Viking history. Her detailed knowledge comes through in every chapter. The book itself, however, was disappointing for me. I was looking forward to reading an historical fiction novel based on female Vikings--something I know little about--but this was not the case. Brown's chapters were all set up with two sections. The first part was in italics and told a sort of fictional story about Hervor, a female Viking warrior. (Brown's theory--and it is a good one--is that both Viking men and women were of equal stature.) The second part of the chapter dissected every detail mentioned in the first part (food, clothing, housing, customs, etc.) to the point that it read like a textbook. The stories themselves were well-written, but disjointed. In my opinion, the author would have had a much more interesting book if she had stuck to her 'story' and incorporated all of the details into it. If you want or like to read about Vikings--especially the female warriors--you may like this book. For me, it just wasn't what I expected. I did learn one thing, however: the term 'bluetooth' came from a Viking King named Harold Bluetooth. Who knew?
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An epic telling of the often forgotten narrative of women in Viking history.  Well written and researched, a stunning work that captures Viking lore in never before seen detail.
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This is a fantastic look at the everyday life in the Viking Age, that focuses on the role and importance of women in Viking literature and culture.  The author completely rejects the old Victorian inspired ideal of Vikings in favor of one that is more grounded in fact from the archaeological record and what when can glean from sagas written centuries after the Viking age ended.  In all cases, the author's stance is supported by a ton of research:  women were many things in the Viking age, and it was not uncommon to come across female warriors, rulers, war leaders, etc.  Told from an invented (but always supported by factual evidence) POV of a woman warrior found in a high-status grave in Birka, the author has done something very interesting, she's given the warrior a saga-like story that reflects actual events of the Viking Age and reveal what life may have been like for her.  There's emphasis on real life women as well, figures we know from history and sagas, as well as a fascinating look at Viking society, trade, travels, culture, etc. as a companion to the exploits of the Birka warrior.  Anyone who is interested in learning more about Vikings, particularly in a way that does not overlook women in the narrative, will want to check out this book.
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The Real Valkyrie: The Hidden History of Viking Warrior Women by Nancy Marie Brown is, at its core, working to dispel the myth that Viking women stayed at home whilst the Viking men raided and traded. In 2017, DNA tests revealed that the body buried in grave Bj581 outside the Swedish town of Birka between 913 and 980 wasn’t the body of a male Viking warrior as initially assumed, but that of a female in her thirties or forties. Buried with the body was numerous weapons including an axe blade, spearheads a two-edges sword, a sax knife and a short bladed knife as well as a set of game pieces, a whetstone, traders weights, a comb, a bronze bowl and two horses (among other things). The assemblage of this burial initially caused assumption that the body was of a male, and specifically a warrior, but since we now know that it’s a woman buried with this warriors assemblage, Nancy has taken it upon herself to write a book highlighting what feels like all the times women proved their worth in the Viking Age, and the times their strength, cunning and ruthlessness was assumed as myth. 

It is obvious that this book was extensively researched. Nancy utilises sagas, poems and epics of the Vikings in conjunction with archaeological and historical evidence to question the way in which females from the Viking Age have been viewed for centuries. Rather than simply providing the evidence that women from the Viking Age have been sorely misremembered thanks to the act of sexing graves by metal, the reflection of Victorian sensibilities of the nineteenth century placed on the Viking Age and the tendency for Icelandic writers of the 12th and 13th centuries (I’m looking at you Snorri Sturluson) to mythologise and generalise the female warriors as valkyries, Nancy merges fiction and solid evidence which captures the readers interest. In order to humanise the skeleton found in Birka, Nancy names the body from Bj581 Hervor, which translates to something like Aware of Battle, after the warrior woman from the old Norse poem Hervor’s Song. Nancy begins each chapter with a fictionalised story, a bit of what Hervor  from burial Bj518’s life could have been like, based upon the historical, textual and archaeological evidence provided throughout the book. Nancy not only provides the evidence for warrior women, but then imagines just how a Viking woman could have lived during the time of Bj518’s life. I found it incredibly fascinating and enjoyable to read how the physical evidence may have been interacted with during the Viking Age, in addition to these imagined sections being a breath of fresh air amidst a detailed and well researched book. One thing that annoyed me through this book was when ‘an archaeologist states,’ or an ‘expert historian says…’ I’d LOVE to know which one. 

Not only does Nancy debunk common beliefs that Viking women were buried with keys which signified their role as housewives, (whereas men were buried with weapons which signified their roles as warriors, raiders and traders), she exposes the bias placed onto the sagas, poems and written sources we have of the Viking Age which were all written a few hundred years after the fact. These biases come from both the values of Victorian society and Christianity, where women were confined to the home. These strict gender lines, as shown through the extensive historical and archaeological evidence provided by Nancy, simply were not there during the Viking Age. Looking at Viking women’s graves alone shows how weapons were more commonplace than keys. I loved the incorporation of other female warriors which we know of from poems as saga’s, as well as historical Viking queens detailed in concurrence with archaeological evidence found throughout the Viking world. Going into detail about clothing, textiles, trade, architecture, boats, social hierarchies, Norse legends, historical and mythological figures and everything in between, no stone is left unturned in this detailed look at the importance of women, their roles and their importance in the Viking world. If you’re interested in relearning everything you think you know about women, queens and female warriors in the Viking Age, then you should definitely pick this book up.
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This is such a fascinating subject! It is contentious, but I love it. Blending history with archaeology and viking culture, lore, magic, and mythology, Brown gives us a picture of just who the person in the warrior grave was in real life. She was not an outlier, but a true warrior in her society. This is a great combination of Norse myth, history, and anthropology.
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