The Norse lore and cosmology are incredibly complex. While we don’t have a holy book of any sort, heathenry is called “the religion of research” for a reason. There is much more to it than the few myths Neil Gaiman retold in his Norse Mythology, and Snorri’s Poetic Edda and Prose Edda. Those writings, both academic and not quite so, ranging between analysis of each line of Völuspa and summaries of Norse shamanist techniques, need to be read through two filters. The first is that there are no written resources from the actual Viking period – it’s taken centuries before the sagas have been written down by Christians. The second – everyone who took it upon themselves to interpret them had an agenda of their own (disclaimer: so do I, only I’m not pretending that I’ve written an academic book). So I read perhaps 1% of what is available, tried to strip it from modern additions, reminded myself that a lot of the Viking-era resources are items the archeologists labelled “religious artifacts” (which translates to “no clue, really”)… then altered what needed to be altered in order to turn that sliver of knowledge into what is hopefully an entertaining, if dark, novel.

When the first round of beta-readers provided me with feedback, they pointed out that they often got lost among all the Gods and worlds and races. I was surprised to hear that despite Chris Hemsworth’s chest there were still people who didn’t even know who Thor was. I have added an index at the beginning of the book, or rather Loki did, where the Gods and the worlds get brief introductions. Finding the right balance between “I don’t understand a thing” and “here’s 50 pages describing the roofs of Heimdall’s hall” has been difficult and I have no clue whether I’ve managed. Here on the blog I’ve been writing a bit more about the Gods – this time I’m going to try and tackle a whole world…



Jötunheim – the home of the jötnar, one of the heathen Nine Worlds, is where the book begins. The popular mistranslation of the word “jötunn” (singular for “jötnar”) as “ice giant” is something I blame Marvel for. In my book it’s also something of a racist slur when used by other peoples. The most accurate/literal translation of “jötnar” would be “the Eaters”.

In my book Jötunheim consists of two parts, the East and West. The Easterners, traders and sailors, are the ones the elves and humans tend to know. That part of Jötunheim is also the coldest, covered in snow and ice through most of the year. The mocking phrase “ice giants” was coined when the elves and human failed to understand the jötnar’s refusal to leave their home land for warmer pastures. Surely, they mocked, that meant that the ice giants loved the cold just as much as the dwarves of Svartálfheim adored spending their lives in their underground forges?

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…then I went and almost died, which would have been a pretty good excuse had I missed the deadline, but also slightly awkward.

It’s been three days. (Good Gods. THREE. DAYS.) I’m stuck trying to process what happened. Maybe I am over-dramatising or remember some parts wrong because of the fever, I tell myself. Wait, but if I had that much of a fever… well, I didn’t really feel like I had it, so maybe it doesn’t count? Then a realisation hits me: those hours, or maybe minutes, when I thought I was falling in and out of sleep? I was falling in and out of consciousness. The stormtroopers, or whoever they were, might have been very quiet, respectful, and even kinda sad when they kept entering and flanking my bed again and again and again and again… I wonder, was it more minutes or hours? I remember I tried to look and one of them covered my watch, so I couldn’t see. Can a hallucination do that, or was I actually hallucinating my attempt to look, but I actually couldn’t move my hand?

Isn’t this the sort of thing that only happens to other people? I’ve already collected spine injuries, an impressive collection of mental health problems, how about other people take their other people stuff and leave me alone to do boring stuff like finishing books?

CW: The following contains medical talk (I took out the most gruesome bits) and me not dying. It’s also a mess representative to the state in which my mind is as well.

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Guest post by Marian L Thorpe, whose Empire’s Reckoning is out today. Purchase links at the end of the post. My completely non-objective score: 6/5.


Empire’s Reckoning is my 5th title and 4th full-length novel set in my fictional, alternate world, a world that bears a strong resemblance in many ways to northern Europe after the fall of Rome…and yet is not. Not in geography, or in all social constructs, or in its history. But it’s so close…

One of the most frequent comments in reviews of my work is that it reads like historical fiction, and I call it historical fiction of an alternate world (actually I’m fairly sure it was Bjørn who coined this phrase). But the reason that it reads like historical fiction is because it is solidly and thoroughly grounded in history, except when it isn’t. But because it has such a solid historical underpinning, the bits that are speculative inventions – like the society separated by gender for all but two weeks a year, and the resultant lack of heteronormative assumptions about sexuality and family structure– don’t seem, perhaps, so outlandish.

(Even that society has some underpinning in history, based in loose terms on the social structure of Sparta, although my society has no slaves, and marriage per se does not exist. The begetting of children is another matter!)

What I’m supposed to be writing about here is how I integrate real history into my fictional world, and this is a bit like when people ask me to write about world-building, because the two are inextricably linked – and the real answer is I don’t know. I don’t do it consciously. But I can analyze the history integration better than I can the world-building. Part of the answer is simply this: I’m 62 years old, I’ve been reading history since I was about 6, and I just have a head full of information that magically tumbles out when I need it. I also have an ability to make odd connections – think laterally, I think is the proper term.

Somewhere in my teens, my father, an amateur historian of the Tudor and Plantagenet eras, imparted an important lesson to me: history is most interesting when we look at its effect on common people. Social history, not just political history. (My main character Lena echoes this: “Not so long ago, really; a year, or less, Cillian and I talked of finding the voices of common people in history. He suggested perhaps the danta (sagas) were the best place to look.”) I set out to write a story about how political developments – warfare, treaties, alliances – affected one young woman from a small fishing village. I also wanted to explore issues of social justice in a  speculative way. I needed a framework for that story, and I didn’t want it in any historically well-documented period. So I put it in what has been known as the ‘dark ages’, the early-medieval period after Rome’s empire shrunk and when learning and intellectual discourse were once thought to be lost.

After that, well, it was a matter of using recognizable aspects of late-Roman and early-medieval Europe: the division of Britain by Hadrian’s Wall; the Viking expansion; the Justinianic plague; the Battle of Maldon…a dozen more…and weaving them together to create a political stage to inform and drive the choices my characters have to make: personal choices about loyalty and ethics, love and betrayal that both reflect and contrast the choices being made at a larger level in their world. I thought about what personal conflicts my characters needed to face, and then borrowed bits and pieces of history to create those conflicts.

Then, well, I needed languages. I like words, the look of them as well as the sound. So I ‘invented’ a few languages – not whole languages, just words here and there – and on the page they look like the languages they’re mirroring: Linrathan looks like Gaelic; Marái’sta looks like Norse; Casilan looks like Latin. Sometimes the words are genuinely in those languages, but most often they’re derivative, like my word scáeli, meaning bard: it looks like skald, it looks like the Irish scéalaí, (storyteller), but it’s made up. But because it looks right, it strengthens the connection to the world I’m reflecting.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention the writer who has been most influential in teaching me to use history this way: the Canadian historic fantasy writer Guy Gavriel Kay, whose books I have read over and over, absorbing how he brings the recognizable known into his world: a world just slightly twisted on its axis, a world with two moons, and a little magic, but still, almost, Europe.

Apparently, this all works, at least in many readers’ minds. When the bookblogger Joules Barham described my books as set in “an Empire on the edge of history”, the phrase resonated immediately. That’s what I write.


Photo credit: Temple of Hercules is by MarkV, licensed under the Creative CommonsAttribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Empire’s Reckoning is out now. Amazon: – all other retailers: