As a writer I live for such days, when the book that's been my world and work for the past three years finally meets you, the readers.
And the first reviews have reassured me that you're going to love it:
"Absorbing ... bristles with fascinating facts," said The Economist.
"A fascinating tale of discovery and mystery," said the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
"This book is a delight," said Booklist: "endlessly fascinating."
The New York Post included it in "This Week's Must-Read Books."
And on Amazon.com it's listed in "Best Books of the Month."
That's in addition to the wonderful blurbs it received from advance readers like Pulitzer-prize winner Geraldine Brooks, who said, "Brown's book is a true cornucopia, bursting with delicious revelations. Whether your passion is chess, art, archaeology, literature, or the uncanny and beautiful landscape of Iceland, Ivory Vikings offers rich and original insights by a writer who is as erudite as she is engaging."
In the early 1800s, on a golden Hebridean beach, the sea exposed an ancient treasure cache: ninety-two game pieces carved of ivory and the buckle of the bag that once contained them. Seventy-eight are chessmen--the Lewis chessmen--the most famous chessmen in the world. Between one and five-eighths and four inches tall, these chessmen are Norse netsuke, each face individual, each full of quirks: the kings stout and stoic, the queens grieving or aghast, the bishops moon-faced and mild. The knights are doughty, if a bit ludicrous on their cute ponies. The rooks are not castles but warriors, some going berserk, biting their shield in battle frenzy. Only the pawns are lumps--simple octagons--and few at that, only nineteen, though the fourteen plain disks could be pawns or men for a different game, like checkers. Altogether, the hoard held almost four full chess sets--only one knight, four rooks, and forty-four pawns are missing--about three pounds of ivory treasure.
Who carved them? Where? How did they arrive in that sandbank or, as another account says, that underground cist--on the Isle of Lewis in westernmost Scotland? No one knows for sure: History, too, has many pieces missing. To play the game, we fill the empty squares with pieces of our own imagination.
Instead of facts about these chessmen, we have clues. Some come from medieval sagas; others from modern archaeology, art history, forensics, and the history of board games. The story of the Lewis chessmen encompasses the whole history of the Vikings in the North Atlantic, from 793 to 1066, when the sea road connected places we think of as far apart and culturally distinct: Norway and Scotland, Ireland and Iceland, the Orkney Islands and Greenland, the Hebrides and Newfoundland. Their story questions the economics behind the Viking voyages to the West, explores the Viking impact on Scotland, and shows how the whole North Atlantic was dominated by Norway for almost five hundred years, until the Scottish king finally claimed his islands in 1266. It reveals the struggle within Viking culture to accommodate Christianity, the ways in which Rome's rules were flouted, and how orthodoxy eventually prevailed. And finally, the story of the Lewis chessmen brings from the shadows an extraordinarily talented woman artist of the twelfth century: Margret the Adroit of Iceland.
The Lewis chessmen are the best-known Scottish archaeological treasure of all time. To David Caldwell, former curator at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, where eleven of the chessmen now reside, they may also be the most valuable: "It is difficult to translate that worth into money," he and Mark Hall wrote in a museum guidebook in 2010, "and practically impossible to measure their cultural significance and the enjoyment they have given countless museum visitors over the years." Or, as Caldwell phrased it to me over tea one afternoon in the museum's cafeteria: "If you knew what they were valued at, you wouldn't want to pick one up."
Too late for that. I'd already spent an hour handling four of them. Out of their glass display case, they are impossible to resist, warm and bright, seeming not old at all, but strangely alive. They nestle in the palm, smooth and weighty, ready to play. Set on a desktop, in lieu of the thirty-two-inch-square chessboard they'd require, they make a satisfying click.
September 9, 2015: Norwich Bookstore, Norwich, VT at 7:00 p.m.
September 11, 2015: Book Launch Party at 7:00 p.m. For an invitation, contact Kim at Green Mountain Books and Prints in Lyndonville, VT.
September 19, 2015: Northshire Bookstore, Manchester Center, VT at 7:00 p.m.
September 21, 2015: Scandinavia House, 58 Park Avenue, New York at 6:30 p.m.
October 15, 2015: The Fiske Icelandic Collection at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY at 4:30 p.m.
October 17, 2015: The Sixth Annual Iceland Affair, Winchester Center, CT; time to be announced.
November 1, 2015: Vermont Voices at Stone Church, Chester, VT at 2 p.m., hosted by Misty Valley Books.