I like to keep ideas fresh on Just History Posts, and for a while I have toyed with the idea of writing book reviews. As I write history books myself, I read lots of snippets of books and articles for my work, which means for a while now I haven’t actually read many history books for pleasure. I thought that starting a series where I review history books would be a good motivation to start widening my reading sphere, and it may help you all find some new reads at the same time! So, for the first book review, I thought I may as well start with the last history book I read.
River Kings: The Vikings from Scandinavia to the Silk Roads came out last year to critical acclaim, and is a very different type of history book to one that I usually read for its focus on archaeology rather than written records.
In 2017, Cat Jarman came into possession of a small orange bead. Her investigation into its origins would cast radical new light on the Vikings – from the surprisingly extensive Scandinavian forays into the East to the dominance of a global slave trade running between the Silk Roads and medieval Britain. This is a major reassessment and a thrilling investigative story, revealing both the world of the Vikings and the cutting-edge forensic methods we use to understand them.
I decided to buy River Kings during a book shop haul because I had seen bits and pieces about it on Twitter. I also know very little at all about the Vikings (or, perhaps more accurately, medieval Scandinavia) and thought this would be a good introduction to the topic. I have not been disappointed.
As is mentioned in the blurb, the book follows Jarman’s story as she researches a carnelian bead, the site it was found at, and its possible wider journey across the world to reach its resting place. The book is split into themed chapters that weave back and forth between places and times and this works well. You are able to focus on the topic at hand (Viking women, religion, slavery) whilst calling back to previous information Jarman has given you.
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The book is written in a very informal tone, and for periods of time Jarman addresses the audience in the first person as we hear about her research. I quite enjoyed this personal touch to her writing for it was quite unlike the usual history books I read, but this approach may not be to everyone’s tastes. Jarman introduces the reader to complex archaeological and scientific processes for analysing human remains and objects but she does this in a simple, clear, and concise way. You do not need to have any prior knowledge on the topic, or be clued up on scientific terminology, as Jarman explains exactly what the processes are, why they are done, and what they can tell us in an informative way without being condescending.
As someone with virtually no prior knowledge of the topic, I found the book engaging and I learnt a lot. I did not know that the Vikings had extended their reach to the East, to the Silk Road and Middle East, and so it was interesting to read a different approach to what I would consider the usual Viking story. That is not to say that Britain (or, mostly England) is left out, and Jarman does hop between East and West in her story. This approach works well, because it opens the readers up to the less-known eastern connections of the Vikings without ignoring their forays to the West. It thus gives the reader a fuller picture of the sphere of influence of the Vikings.
As I have mentioned, I am very much a newcomer to this history, so how much information within the book would be new to those already quite well-versed in Scandinavian history I could not say. There are very few footnotes in the book, and no bibliography, so the book is certainly for a more casual reader rather than anyone looking to undertake deeper research. I can, however, heartily recommend the book to other newbies like me, or people looking for a simple general history of Viking exploits. It would also be a good read for those who want to delve into archaeological history, rather than the more common history books. Why not give it a try?
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3 thoughts on “Book Review: “River Kings” by Cat Jarman”
I’ve read really good reviews of this book too, and it’s on my wishlist! To tell the story of the Vikings, just by starting with one small item like a carnelian bead, is a fantastic idea – I’m sure there’s a specific word for that kind of storytelling, not sure if it’s microhistory? Where you look at one small item or example from history, and that guides you to the bigger picture 🤔
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Yes I definitely enjoyed it a lot and thought it was an interesting concept! It was a clever way to bring the story back together when she had been looking at the wider picture for a time.
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