The Thirteenth Shelf

Book Review: The Age of the Vikings by Anders Winroth

The Age of the Vikings by Anders Winroth (goodreads page)
Published: 2014
Pages: 320

Topic: Scandinavian culture during the Viking age
Author agenda: providing a wider view of Vikings beyond mere pillagers
Information balance:
Prerequisite knowledge a reader should have: some knowledge of European geography
What you can learn from the book: a wider, more complete view of all things Scandinavian (as well as their effects on the world) during the Viking age.

1 minute summary
The Vikings maintain their grip on our imagination, but their image is too often distorted by myth. Drawing on a wealth of written and archaeological evidence, The Age of the Viking looks at Viking endeavors in commerce, combat, politics, discovery, and colonization, as well as arts, literature, and religious thought.

My rating: 3/5 – solid but not for me; but may be enjoyed by others.
1 sentence review: although chock full of interesting academically-sourced information that provides a fascinating nuanced view of Scandinavian culture, this book can also be weedy and repetitive.

Pros: lots of interesting information, nicely contained chapters focusing on each subject
Cons: not very causally readable, author can get lost in a weeds; information can sometimes get repetitive

Good for readers who: want a good resource for Norse culture beyond Vikings, are comfortable with more academic language and European geography.
Not so great for readers who: enjoy more casual non-fiction books, just want simple interesting information.

I chose this non-fiction book because its intention was to cover information beyond the realm of bloodthirsty Vikings. Not knowing anything about Norse culture except vague media-shaped ideas, I wanted to make a conscious effort to understand the full range of it.

This book really delivered on the type of Norse, non-viking information I was looking for. Each chapter is clearly titled and focuses on one aspect of Norse culture: farm life, trade, emigration, arts and letters, etc.–subjects usually ignored when talking about the Viking age. I found so much of the information absolutely fascinating, such as the deeply influential Norse leaders throughout the UK, and the Viking trade reach all the way to the Arab Caliphate. There was so much to learn, and this book takes its time to paint a really clear and vivid picture of everything, from its kings to its farmers.

However, I felt this book was not very friendly to an armchair reader. For starters, the author gets lost in the weeds several times. I think it was a decision made for the sake of thoroughness, but he ended up losing me at several points when he went on about all of a king’s many descendants or the way in which all sorts of rivers intersected and flowed. It definitely could have used many more visual aids. I struggled with his long descriptions of where certain trade towns were in relation to which fjords, seas or other trade towns.

The language isn’t easy. By ‘easy,’ I don’t mean that Winroth used hard words or the language was especially academic or dry. I mean that much of the book read like an undergraduate’s essay to me—not just in tone, but also in its repetitiveness. At times, the text legitimately reminded me of a college student trying to reach a word count. In certain chapters, he kept repeating his chapter thesis as a way to transition between ideas. His writing lacks the conversational smoothness that allows casual readers to easily process information. It doesn’t feel like a book for someone like me, but rather a resource for students.

However, I’m not sure who the intended audience was for this book. It could be that it is intended as an academic resource, so I’m not going to call these aspects a negative, but rather something to be aware of when considering this book. I’m a frequent non-fiction reader, and I know preference for tone and style varies greatly, especially if you’re familiar with the subject or looking for specific levels of academic standards.

Overall: this is a great but fairly meandering academic read. If you’re deeply interested in the Viking age and looking for a scholarly resource to delve deeper into the time and culture, this may be the book for you.