Sunday, July 22, 2018

Book Review: Under a Warped Cross by Steve Lindahl

A Tough Look at the Clash Between Life and Religion in Medieval Britannia

People didn’t live long in medieval Britannia, Ireland, and Scandinavia.  If you were lucky enough to survive birth and a childhood filled with hard labor and poor living conditions, you could look forward to adulthood when disagreements between individuals and states were often settled with a whip to the back or a battle axe to the skull.  Under a Warped Cross covers all those forms of ‘conflict resolution,’ some several times.  But the aggression at the heart of the story is the inhumanity inflicted in the name of organized religion.  It was a time when religion would condone any and all means to ‘correct’ the thinking of the masses.  And its heavy hand often fell on women.  In fact, as the story begins, priests have just made an example of Abigail, one of the main characters of the book, by cutting off her nose because she was suspected of incest.  The violence in the book, while not graphic, is intense and frequent.

In the simple dichotomy of plot-driven vs. character-driven books, Under a Warped Cross is primarily the latter.  The plot is simple.  The priests’ punishment changes the lives of three siblings, as Goda and Abigail run off together while Waso begins a quest to find them.  This storyline is completed well before the end of the book.  Character development, on the other hand, continues to the end, as author Lindahl does an admirable job depicting the characters’ courage and determination, as well as their distrust and superstition.  In particular, I found the latter interesting, as “signs” were everywhere, but their meaning was never clear and often contradictory.

To go beyond traits that are shown through action, the author occasionally includes thoughts or dialog that deviate from character, e.g., Jolenta wondered if her choice had been a revenge of sorts, for all the times Coventina had chosen her wards over her own child. That thought made Jolenta worry about her own soul as much as she worried about her mother’s.”  That’s a complex concept for a ten-year-old (Jolenta).  But even though these out-of-character thoughts interrupt the story’s flow, they’re useful for the depth they provide.

Overall, Under a Warped Cross is an engrossing look at the people of the Middle Ages and their suffering at the hands of organized religion.  It can be tough reading in places, but then, that was their life.

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