This book is follows a pretty well trod premise at this point, though it does it well.
Plot: Dissatisfied Future Woman craves intimacy. Accidentally falls back in time to the Viking Age because of some weird quirk of 22nd century VR tech. Falls in love with a chieftain who has sworn to never touch anyone because of the curse he was born with (a big birthmark that is deemed a foul omen). They lust after each other for a few hundred pages between Dissatisfied Future Woman spending weeks making fabric and learning all the small things that get lost in history about a culture.
On Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, the review for this book uses the word “soothing”. I think if you’re a normal person, this is exactly the right word to describe this book. You could have pulled out the characters and plot and probably still have half the book left that’s just the domestic history of the Icelandic people. Of course, I can’t say I know enough about the subject to be a judge of its accuracy, but I did look into the research the author did for the book and it seemed almost overwhelmingly comprehensive. So if learning about how an ancient Icelandic farm prepared for winter (for months), or how its people occupied their time when it’s too cold to go anywhere or do anything, this book is going to be magical for you.
I didn’t like it. I know. I’ve had a rough streak with books.
My problem with this novel has to do mostly with the characters. I just don’t have time for Do Nothing women and our lead is one of the most passive characters I’ve encountered in ages. She absolutely hates the 22nd century, but there is no indication that she’s ever actually made an attempt to get the sort of “real” connection she craves and believes is impossible to forge. Maybe if we got a bit of context as to who she was, this kind of defeatist attitude would at least make sense, but we never learn anything at all about her life outside of the fact that she works as a researcher for a VR company making ancient Icelandic language accurate (I think? the specifics of her job are glossed over, but it’s something that requires language expertise). And also she has a fuck buddy that she doesn’t like. That’s it. No family, no friends, no nothing. And it doesn’t even make sense because she talks about the various people around her in the 22nd century and at least some of them seem to be enjoying themselves tremendously. There are apparently plenty of people who, for example, like to go full Reenactment and go live out in the wilderness. Why doesn’t she just join them if she wants a deeper connection to the earth?
Not only that, but for all her criticism of the world, when she does fall back in time, she makes no attempt to make the nightmarish future the whole world is headed down any different. She doesn’t suggest that more thought is given when cutting down trees, even though she identifies the clear-cutting they have started doing to expand the farm as the root of our society’s destructive disconnect from nature. Also, she complains about feeling disconnected in the 22nd century. In the 10th, the people she meets, she realizes will literally never meet as many people in their entire lives as she would on any given day in the future. Their world is TINY, their marriages are generally arranged and unrelated to personal feelings, violence (up to murder) is a normalized part of the social structure, as is slavery, gender roles are not only strict but mandatory, but oh no, the people in the future are disconnected from their peers, not in the past, where she literally gives one sentence worth of thought for the fact that the only reason she isn’t a slave herself is because she accidentally fell back in time in the dress of a noble lady. Oh well. Thanks, slaves! I’ll go frolic in the woods, get lost, and need to be rescued by the men, while you work yourself to the bone. But wow does the 22nd century suck!
In fact, she doesn’t really do anything, at any point. She is constantly being rescued from her own stupidity. The only explanation I can think of for why the much more interesting and vibrant character of the chieftain wants to be with her is because she is literally the only person who doesn’t believe that his birthmark is a curse because she comes from a time that knows that birthmarks are a thing. There is an extremely brief moment near the end of the book where she, in standard protagonist mode, gets her shit together long enough to resolve the plot, but because there is absolutely no build up to it, it rings hollow. Then there’s the fact that for some reason it took her a year and a half to figure out who the villain was (and no one else figured it out in decades) when it took me literally one sentence. Also that she sentences this person to exile and possibly death with exactly zero evidence. Real hero, you.
My point is that however bad the 22nd century is, the problem is the protagonist, who is selfish, and wants to be handed life on a platter, and then does, and we’re supposed to accept that as a well deserved happy ending.
There is a list of questions at the end that the author poses to help book clubs discuss the book (which I think is a fantastic idea that I hope takes off). One of the questions is whether the time travel piece of the story is essential, and what would be lost if you had the main character be a regular woman from the 10th century. Frankly, I think it would have improved the book tremendously. The main character has no wisdom at all to share from the future, so her knowledge of what happens is entirely unnecessary to the plot. Also, if she came to love and respect the chieftain despite being raised in a society that genuinely believes in marks from the gods and curses and stuff, that would show her as genuinely seeing him in a way others refuse to, being brave enough to push back against the norms she grew up with, and if she had indeed been someone of low status, challenging the rigid social classes that existed at the time to find happiness. But this would require our heroine to do literally anything but sleepwalk through her own life, whether it’s in the future or the past.