Cover Image: The Real Valkyrie

The Real Valkyrie

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This book explores the role of women in Viking society.  It begins with bones which were discovered in 1878.  The bones were originally assumed to be male as the items found with the bones were of the sort that were usually buried with war leaders and it was assumed that the legend of women who went to war was a myth.  This mistake was discovered when DNA testing was done in 2017.
The author draws together many sources to weave a narrative that suggests that in Viking society the sexes were  much more equal than popular tales would suggest.  The warrior woman had been discounted as myth, in part because these discoveries were viewed through societies in which women kept house while the men went to war.  She also uses a lot of the tales and narratives of the North which had even earlier been tales which were passed down through the ages.
I knew little but the images of a large red-headed man with flowing locks wearing metal and leather armor. It was nice to see another perspective and gain a little more balanced view of Viking society.  The author took what could have been a dry factual account and gave it some depth with the various that a life might have gone.
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I am a true fan of Nancy Marie Brown. I hope one day to visit Iceland to see the ponies she described in an earlier work. Her writing is so descriptive I can see, hear, smell and taste the air in the places and objects she writes about. 

I have seen some of the skeletons that have historically been identified as male, and have more recently been tentatively identified as female, with just a cursory exploration of the reasons for their burial with weapons. Nancy Marie Brown vividly brings the story of these warrior women to life. The depth of her research and breadth of her knowledge are apparent. 

I look forward to many more books from Nancy Marie Brown!
Thank you
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Brilliantly imagined, brilliantly executed.  This is one of the best, most creative history books I have read.  The author begins each chapter with an episode of fiction, clearly invented, but which provides a unique humanizing perspective on the topic covered in the chapter.  Each chapter the provides the substantive historical facts based on archeological evidence and source documents, supporting and enhancing the conclusions of the author.  The topic of the book, of course, is that females in the viking era were not simply wives and mothers, spinning wool and keeping the home fires burning while the men went a viking.  In fact, they were warriors and traders in their own right.  But what was most thought provoking for me was the realization that we draw our conclusions and make finds and theories shape our expectations of the current world, even if the historical world had little in common with our own.  It made me wonder what inherent biases I bring to my conclusions and my life.  In short, this is the best of books:  thought provoking and entertaining, well written and well researched.  Not to be missed.
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Well researched and thought out. Tracing the life of Hervor helped me to connect to the information, as personal narratives are always compelling. I especially appreciated the emphasis on how society's biases can color our historiography and view of history. I can definitely use this in my World History and Gender Studies classes.
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(<b>Note:</b> I received an advanced reader copy of this book courtesy of NetGalley)

In 1889, at the site of the Viking trading center in Birka, Sweden, a long-dead warrior’s burial chamber was found, complete with an impressive array of weapons and valuables. However, a far greater discovery would occur well over 100 years after her initial unearthing when DNA analysis showed her to be a woman. 

It’s this mysterious and intriguing figure who takes center stage in "The Real Valkyrie". Based upon what has been scientifically documented from modern analysis of her remains and the artifacts that the warrior was discovered with, plus a combination of Viking literature and other tools from the historical record author Nancy Marie Brown goes on to construct a story of what this woman’s life might have been like. And as she weaves her tale from chapter to chapter, she touches upon many aspects of life during the Viking era and ends up revealing a world that, amongst many aspects, was a surprisingly diverse one amongst its various warbands, free towns, and kingdoms, and possessed considerable cosmopolitan streaks thanks to a surprisingly large international reach through both raiding and trading that stretched from Ireland to the Silk Road. However, central and most important is Brown’s revelations of a Viking world where the women and men were by no means contained to strict gender roles, especially when it came to picking up a sword. 

To say the least, the new perspective that the author provides sends something of a battering ram crashing into long-held misconceptions, and I for one could not possibly be more for it. Brown’s creatively realistic imagining of the kind of life that the Birka warrior might have lived finally gives a voice to what seems to be quite a sizable number of similar women who for hundreds of years have long been written off as mere legend or fantasy. And by showing the Viking era to be far more complex than what traditional historical lenses have made it out to be, she also reveals a time and culture that frankly is all far more fascinating than most of us have been able to realize until now.. "The Real Valkyrie" is strongly recommended to anyone currently on the hunt for an eye-opening read.
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I received the ARC in exchange for honest review. 
This was thought provoking and a well researched. I enjoyed goinf into detail about gender roles and the fluidity of these roles during Viking times. While the story of Hervor is fictional, the research and conclusions drawn are logical and quite possible. This is an excellent addition to the topic and an much needed take on women during the period.
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I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Thank you!

In 2017, DNA analysis was used on the bones found in an important burial site previously unearthed in Birka, Sweden. These bones are believed to be those of a Viking warrior due to the weapons and other tools found within the grave. Scholars were then shocked to learn that these bones belonged to a female. The Real Valkyrie does a fantastic job of using science and archaeology to show that Viking women had more agency than we have previously believed. Brown does an excellent job imaging what the life of the warrior found in Birka, who she names Hervor, might have been like. She uses her expansive knowledge of Viking history and sagas to bring the 10th century Viking world and society to life. The Real Valkyrie shows how modern assumptions and biases have shaped what we think about Viking women more than real data and facts have.

This is a well-researched and thought provoking book. While discussing what Hervor's story may have been, Brown shows off her incredible story-telling skills as well. This is an aspect of the book that I really enjoyed. She images how Hervor's life might have intersected with other amazing Viking women such as Queen Gunnhild Mother-of-Kings, Queen Olga, and other figures. It's very enjoyable and engaging to read through. I recommend it to anyone interesting Viking society and history, as well as the history of women. It provides great insight into the subject and makes you wonder what else have historians gotten wrong in the past.
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Based on just bones, an elaborate grave, and her expansive knowledge of history, Nancy Marie Brown leads her readers through the probable life of of a powerful and successful female Viking Warrior. Alternating between imagined scenes from the life of this warrior, whom Brown names Hervor, and well-researched history, Brown discusses the 10th century Viking world and the way that this warrior would have existed within it. Perhaps the most valuable aspect of this book is that Brown uses Hervor's story to expose the real role what women played in Viking society, particularly that of the female warrior. Brown carefully teases apart the fact from Victorian age adaptations and modern assumptions to reveal the very real story of one Viking woman and how she represents an entire group of warriors.

I really enjoyed this book. I went into it expecting a historical fiction and was surprised to find that this was more concrete history than fiction. However, it was a pleasantly surprised, and I found that Brown expertly weaves the history into chapters of Hervor's life, and does so in a way that is highly engaging. Readers who enjoy history will love this book, and I believe people on the fence about straight history will also be able to enjoy it. 

Thank you to St. Martin's Press for an advanced copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
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In the 1800s, a Viking burial site was unearthed in Birka, Sweden.  The burial included a Viking ship, weaponry, game pieces, horses and riding accessories, and other tools.  The grave was documented as that of a Viking warrior, as evidenced by the contents of the burial.  As Brown shares in her book, most “sexing” (that is, determination of whether a skeleton is male or female) throughout the history of archaeology has been sexing by metal.  That is to say, where weapons are found, it is deemed to be a male, where jewelry is found, female.   There are a number of reasons why the field of archaeology has used this approach even as DNA testing has emerged, and Brown provides an interesting overview of this process. 

In 2017, DNA analysis was performed on the bones found in Birka and led to an unexpected and shocking discovery: they were bones of a female. The Real Valkyrie explores what this means, what has been hidden in plain sight all along, and imagines the possibilities of the life lived so long ago.

Using her history of the Icelandic sagas, Brown takes an innovative approach to her book.  Taking real life stories, cultural knowledge, and details from the Viking past, she creates a potential life story for this woman, who she names Hervor, after a character in a saga.  There are real details folded in.  Evaluation of the skeleton provided information on where the Viking woman lived at various points in her life.  Aging of the bones placed her within a relatively narrow window of time, and her age at death was 30-40 years old.  Melding all of that together, Brown paints a reality-based, fictional story that brings the life of a 10th century Viking woman to life.  The start of each chapter includes this fictionalized story of Hervor before shifting into a more common non-fiction exploration of the society at the time, spanning politics, warfare, burial mechanisms, clothing, and more.

Throughout the entire book, the undercurrent is an exploration of the gender roles during the time of the Vikings, roles that we learn were not nearly defined as they would be in more modern times.  Brown also seeks out information concerning when the story changed, when Vikings started to be portrayed as gender-divided with men as warriors and women as housebound stereotypes.  Two major milestones in this evolution can be laid at the feet of Christianity, which morphed the social roles to fit religious requirements, and also during the Victorian Era, when defined gender roles were at their peak.

In her books, Brown is interested in exploring what we think we know of history and how it compares to what may have been the true story before future centuries created myths and tales to reinforce their own views.  There was so much in this book that was eye-opening.  For example, there was gender fluidity - beyond just the blurred gender roles (blurred, that is, by modern standards) - where some women were referred to as “king” instead of “queen” and where some women took on male names and personas for periods of time in their lives.  Homosexuality was also acceptable, as long as it was not part of an act of adultery, which was not acceptable for anyone.

What was also eye-opening to me is the significant role modern bias has played in how Vikings have been viewed; how, for example, graves were assumed to contain men if they met certain qualifications.  It was assumed that women would not have been warriors in spite of ample evidence to the contrary, for example, in the sagas.  And, lending the title to the book itself, archaeologists have assumed that the women warriors depicted in Viking artwork and stories must have been supernatural Valkyries because that seemed more likely than the fact that they immortalized actual warrior women.  

Brown’s book is well-researched and based in cultural documents; she also uses literary license to explore the ‘what if’ of history.  How many other ‘facts’ of history are layered upon initial biased perspectives?  How much are we a product of our own time and own biases even in spite of having knowledge to the contrary?  Nothing Brown said about the Victorian Era or the role of the church in gender definition was new to me, but these perspectives are deeply ingrained in us in a way that makes it harder to see what is staring us right in the face.

For anyone interested in the Vikings and their society at large or the history of women, this is a fascinating read that will make you think about the world a little more critically.
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