Win a free copy of “Seidman” today at 5pm EST!

SeidmanIf you follow Harmony Ink Press on Twitter ( https://twitter.com/HarmonyInkPress ), they’ll be giving away a free copy of my first YA novel about Vikings and sorcery, Seidman, tonight at 5pm EST!

Make sure to grab it quickly—the tweetaway only lasts 20 minutes!

If you’re not familiar with the novel, here’s the blurb and an excerpt:

BLURB:

In Viking Age Iceland, where boys are expected to grow into strong farmers and skilled warriors, there is little place for a sickly twelve-year-old boy like Kol until he catches the eye of a seið-woman—a sorceress—and becomes her apprentice. Kol travels to the sorceress’s home, where her grandson, Thorbrand, takes Kol under his wing. Before long Kol discovers something else about himself that is different—something else that sets him apart as unmanly: Kol has fallen in love with another boy. 

But the world is changing in ways that threaten those who practice the ancient arts. As Kol’s new life takes him across the Norse lands, he finds that a new religion is sweeping through them, and King Olaf Tryggvason is hunting down and executing sorcerers. When a decades-old feud forces Thorbrand to choose between Kol and his duty to his kinsman, Kol finds himself cast adrift with only the cryptic messages of an ancient goddess to guide him to his destiny—and possibly to his death.

EXCERPT:

After more than a week of this isolation, Kol finally reached the point where he couldn’t stand it anymore. So, late in the night when he was certain everyone in the hall was sleeping, he got up and crept to Thorbrand’s bed. He thought his friend was asleep and reached out to touch him gently, but then he heard the young man whisper, “What are you doing?”

Startled, Kol pulled his hand back. “I just wanted to see you,” he said, his voice sounding pathetic even to his own ears.

“I know what you want,” Thorbrand said harshly. “But you’re out of your mind if you think I’m going to….” They had never given a word to what they’d done together in the bathhouse, and he balked at naming it now.

“Not in my father’s bed.”

“I just wanted—”

“Go back to your own bed, Kol.”

Stung, Kol turned and slipped away. But he didn’t return to his bed—he couldn’t. He wasn’t sure what to do, but his throat was constricted and his eyes threatened to brim over. The last thing he needed was for the others to wake up and catch him sobbing. He grabbed his cloak and threw it over his naked shoulders. Then, trying not to make any noise, he opened the door of the longhouse just a crack and slipped outside.

The night air was bitter cold and the ground nearly frozen. He hadn’t thought to put his boots on, and it wasn’t long before his bare feet grew numb. He clutched the cloak to his body, shivering as an icy drizzle fell upon him.

But it was too late to turn back. The tears had overflowed and he couldn’t stop them from streaming down his face.

The sensible thing might be to go to the bathhouse. At least it would be warm there. But it would just remind him of Alfdis’s death and the fact that Thorbrand wasn’t with him. So instead, he climbed a small hill not far from the longhouse and sat down on the damp grass. At least this way he could tuck his feet into the folds of his cloak while he tried to make sense of things.

Thorbrand was chieftain now. And he was being forced to take on immense responsibilities. Kol understood that. But it seemed more had changed than he’d realized. He’d thought Thorbrand might be missing him, needing him. That he would welcome Kol holding him, if just for a short time. But….

“You idiot,” Thorbrand’s irritated voice cut through his gloomy thoughts.

Startled, Kol looked up to see a shadowy figure climbing the hill toward him. Unlike Kol, Thorbrand had had the sense to at least throw on a tunic and some boots, though he’d left his cloak behind.

“What in Hel are you doing out here?” Thorbrand growled. “It’s freezing!”

“Nothing,” Kol replied, struggling to keep his voice even.

Thorbrand snorted as he plopped down on the grass beside him, reminding Kol for a moment of Alfdis. “Nothing. Just sitting on cold, wet grass in the dark, crying like a girl. Some great sorcerer you are!”

This was too much. It was bad enough for Thorbrand to shove him away, but to come after Kol just to make fun of him!

Kol wanted to lash out at him, but before he could do or say anything, Thorbrand had pulled him close and was kissing him hard on the mouth. And it was all there, in that kiss—everything Kol feared had gone away. All the longing; all the tenderness.

When Thorbrand finally broke the kiss, keeping their foreheads touching so that Kol could still feel his hot breath against his lips, Thorbrand said, “Do you think I haven’t been going out of my mind too? I hate sleeping alone, not being able to hold you. But what am I supposed to do about it?”

“I don’t know….”

“I’m a chieftain now,” Thorbrand went on. “Or at least I’m trying to be. We’re not kids anymore, Kol.”

“What does that mean?”

Thorbrand gritted his teeth in frustration, unable to pull away. “Men don’t… want this.”

Kol looked back at him defiantly, watching while the stern resolution in Thorbrand’s eyes gradually gave way to desire. At last, Thorbrand pulled him close again, brushing Kol’s ear with his lips as he said, “Come on, then.”

He led Kol to the bathhouse, where they stayed until the lightening sky forced them to return to the longhouse. Fortunately, nobody had awoken yet, and they were able to sneak back to their separate beds without being discovered.

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New 5-heart review of “Seidman” on MM Good Book Reviews!

Seidman

“I absolutely loved Kol. He was like the Viking Harry Potter of his era. He was very shy, but incredibly brave. Even when death was staring him in the face he stood stall and strong.

I recommend this novel to anyone who is looking for a very entertaining and historical book depicting young love, magic, and adventure. Trust me, you will not be disappointed.”

(Click the image to read the full review!)

How would Kol and Thorbrand celebrate Yule?

yule

Gleðileg Jól

Though the earliest recorded feast celebrating the birth of Christ on December 25th dates back to the fourth century A.D., the celebration of Christmas didn’t really take hold until the Middle Ages, after the end of the Viking Age in Europe.  However, at the time Seidman takes place (995 A.D. – 1000 A.D.), Viking Age Iceland had been celebrating the tradition of Yule or Jól for several centuries.  Nobody knows how far back the tradition goes, but certainly it dates back to before the 6th century.  (Not in Iceland specifically — Iceland wasn’t settled until 870 A.D — but it was brought there by settlers.)  Also, there are various speculations about the meaning of the word Jól (and it’s variants), but nobody really knows what it meant.  Some people say it’s derived from a word meaning “wheel,” as in the “wheel of the year,” though I don’t think there’s any real proof of that.

It is from the Norse cultures that we get the tradition of the “Twelve Days of Christmas.”  Yule lasted from the winter solstice (roughly the 21st of December) through the beginning of January.  In modern Iceland, it goes from Christmas to January 6th, but I believe that’s more modern.*

During this time, the Icelanders feasted and drank — a lot.  In the Sagas, there are several mentions of “drinking Yule.”  And yes, Kol and Thorbrand would have been able to drink alcohol.  In a country and time when it wasn’t uncommon to be married by 15 or 16, nobody stopped a teenager from quaffing ale along with the rest of the family.  Bees are not native to Iceland, so honey would have been imported.  Likewise, the honey-based mead popular in other Norse regions (though generally among the wealthy) would have been imported, so the most common alcoholic beverage would have been ale, made from fermented grain.

The most common meats would have been mutton and pork, with a bit of beef thrown in.  During Yule, a boar would be sacrificed to the god, Freyr, for prosperity over the coming year.  Norsemen would place their hands on the boar before the sacrifice and make solemn pledges about what they intended to accomplish over the next year, so that the animal’s spirit could take their promises up to the god when it was slain.  These were very serious oaths and to break them would offend the god.  The animal would then have its head carried into the hall ceremoniously, and the rest of it would be carved up or stewed for the feast.

There would of course also be plenty of singing.  The Icelanders cherished good singers and good storytellers, who made those long, dark winter nights more bearable.  At this time of year, the sun rises around 11:30 a.m. and sets just a few hours later.

The tradition of wassailing — going door-to-door and singing for free food and drink — began at least a few hundred years before Kol’s time, but it probably wouldn’t have been popular in a country where the farmsteads were fairly isolated in the winter.  I grew up in New England and we had cars, but we were still disinclined to travel very far in midwinter.  People did visit, of course (we’re back in Iceland now), and when they did they probably stayed a few days.  Another tradition that may have been around in Kol’s time would have been that of the Yule Goat, a straw figure of a goat made from the last sheaves of the harvest and possibly derived from Thor’s goats, Tanngrisnir (“Teeth-barer”) and Tanngnjóstr (“Teeth-grinder”).  It was brought from house to house to bless the people who lived there.  But as with wassailing, I’m skeptical about this “house to house” thing in the dead of winter.

Thorbrand’s family might very well have had a Yule Log, though.  Trees didn’t grow very tall in Iceland, but there certainly were trees.  So the custom of bringing one into the longhouse, more or less whole, to keep feeding into the hearth fire for as long as it would burn may have been part of the Yule celebration.

One Icelandic Yule tradition that was most likely not part of Kol and Thorbrand’s Yule, because it doesn’t date back before the 17th century, is that of the Yuletide Lads (Jólasveinar).  I mention them because they’re such an interesting Icelandic tradition.  The Yuletide Lads are the sons of two ogres, Grýla and Leppalúði, who appear in folklore as far back as the 13th century.  These two ogres devoured bad children, so Icelandic parents used them to frighten their kids into behaving.  The Yuletide Lads were similarly used to frighten children in the old days, but by now they’ve come to be known as fairly harmless pranksters, causing mischief but not doing any real harm.

They each arrive on a different day of the Yule season and hang around the household for about twelve days.  They are often accompanied by the Yuletide Cat, a large beast who has the odd habit of devouring children and servants who haven’t received a new set of clothes for Yule — because if they were good, they would have gotten a present of new clothes from their parents or masters.

I’ve taken the liberty of swiping this handy table from a Wikipedia article with only slight modifications.  It lists the most common names of the Yuletide Lads (taken from a popular poem called Jólasveinarnir, written in 1932 by Jóhannes úr Kötlum):

Icelandic Name English translation Description Arrival Departure
Stekkjastaur Sheep-Cote Clod Harasses sheep, but is impaired by his stiff peg-legs. December 12 December 25
Giljagaur Gully Gawk Hides in gullies, waiting for an opportunity to sneak into the cowshed and steal milk. December 13 December 26
Stúfur Stubby Abnormally short. Steals pans to eat the crust left on them. December 14 December 27
Þvörusleikir Spoon-Licker Steals Þvörur (wooden spoons with long handles) to lick. Is extremely thin due to malnutrition. December 15 December 28
Pottaskefill Pot-Scraper Steals leftovers from pots. December 16 December 29
Askasleikir Bowl-Licker Hides under beds waiting for someone to put down their askur (a type of bowl with a lid used instead of dishes), which he then steals. December 17 December 30
Hurðaskellir Door-Slammer Likes to slam doors, especially during the night. December 18 December 31
Skyrgámur Skyr-Gobbler A Yule Lad with an affinity for skyr (an Icelandic food similar to yogurt.  I wrote more about it here). December 19 January 1
Bjúgnakrækir Sausage-Swiper Would hide in the rafters and snatch sausages that were being smoked. December 20 January 2
Gluggagægir Window-Peeper A voyeur who would look through windows in search of things to steal. December 21 January 3
Gáttaþefur Doorway-Sniffer Has an abnormally large nose and an acute sense of smell which he uses to locate laufabrauð (“leaf bread”). December 22 January 4
Ketkrókur Meat-Hook Uses a hook to steal meat. December 23 January 5
Kertasníkir Candle-Stealer Follows children in order to steal their candles (which in those days was made of tallow and thus edible). December 24 January 6

So, as they say in Iceland:  Gleðileg Jól (“Happy Yule!”)

*NOTE:  If you’re getting the impression that I’m winging it…well, let’s just say I didn’t have time to dig up too many sources, so this article is mostly from memory, with tidbits from a few easily accessible websites thrown in.  If you find any inaccuracies, feel free to send me a note.  🙂

Some interesting links:

An Icelandic article about the Yuletide Lads

A nice informal Icelandic website about Yule

Recipes for Icelandic Yule foods from the site above

A more detailed recipe for laufabrauð

“Seidman” has received two honorary mentions at the Rainbow Awards!

rainbowawards_hon_mention3

So yesterday the winners of the Rainbow Awards were announced.  The Rainbow Awards are given out by a panel of judges (quite a large panel, in fact) on the popular Elisa Rolle review site.  I don’t know how many years they’ve been going on for now, but they’re pretty big, with a huge list of books in the competition, so it’s really an honor to win.

Seidman didn’t win, but it did get an honorable mention in two categories:

BEST LGBT YOUNG ADULT / COMING OF AGE

and

BEST GAY DEBUT NOVEL/BOOK!

In honor of this, my publisher has discounted Seidman by 25% for the entire week at All Romance eBooks!

In other news, Dreams of Fire and Gods: Dreams has gone into galley proof, which means that it’s mostly done — we’re just checking over the formatted novel for typos and other errors.  It will be available on December 15th!

Coinciding with the release, I (James Erich, in case you’ve forgotten who I am) will be doing my first online chat!    It will be on the Harmony Ink Facebook page:  https://www.facebook.com/HarmonyInkPress

So come and say hello!  And win free stuff!  We’ll be giving away a free eBook copy of Dreams of Fire and Gods: Dreams, as well as some original sketches of the main characters, Sael and Koreh, by Beau Shemery!  I think it’s from 1pm EST to 6pm EST, but I’ll double check that and post the hours here again, when I’m more certain.  The first Harmony Ink chat was yesterday, featuring Beau Shemery (in his author guise, but with plenty of giveaways of his sketches), discussing his steampunk novel, The Seventh of London, and it went pretty well.

Lastly, I’ve submitted Seidman for consideration in the Lambda Literary Awards.  As they say, you can’t win, if you don’t enter.  The competition is steep, but the award is prestigious.  Even being a finalist would be amazing!

Great review for “Seidman”!

Jessica Chambers over at Rainbow Book Reviews has written a wonderful review for Seidman!

The thing that struck me as particularly good about this novel was how we get to see Kol and Thorbrand grow up, following their progress from carefree boys interested only in each other, to mature young men with their own responsibilities. Though the story does have a strong fantasy element, the developing relationship between the heroes is incredibly realistic, taking into account the attitudes towards homosexuality at the time, and is in fact one of the most poignant I’ve come across in a while.

Read the whole review here!

How to Insult Your Friends Like a Viking!

One of the criticisms I’ve received about Seidman is that the dialog between Kol and Thorbrand felt a little too “modern.”  This is a perfectly valid criticism, if it brings the reader out of the story.  But it was a deliberate artistic choice on my part, so I’d like to explain my reasoning.

I’ve read a bunch of books on Vikings, in which everyone speaks like Conan the Barbarian or a character from The Lord of the Rings — rather stilted and formal, and using the exclamation “Fool!” quite a bit.  Now, I’m a big fan of Conan and LOTR, but I don’t think people ever really talked that way.  Like the fact that all films about Vikings are scored with heavy kettle drums, low brass that didn’t even exist before the Renaissance and chorsuses of men shouting, “Huh!”, this is simply a modern shorthand for historical dialog.

I suspect the thing that seems the most jarring to some readers are the insults Kol and Thorbrand toss around.  In several places, they use the word, “dummy” or “stupid” and these can break the illusion of the book being a historical novel.  Perhaps words like “dullard” or “fool” or “simpleton” would be more in keeping with the tone of a historical.  (And in fact the adult characters in Seidman do tend to talk a bit more like that.)

But in reality, Kol would not say “dullard” or “fool” or “dummy” in any context.  He doesn’t speak English.  He would say fífl, which translates to…wait for it…”dullard” or “simpleton” or “dummy”.  Maybe “idiot.”  But to Kol and Thorbrand, the way they speak to one another would be perfectly natural and easy to their ears.  Teenagers, no matter what the time period, don’t speak formally to one another.  (Well, unless they’re raised in high society, perhaps.)  So why translate it formally?  Why not just make it colloquial and informal, as it would sound to them?  That was my reasoning for making Kol and Thorbrand talk the way they do in the novel.

But at this point you may be wondering, just how did the Norse insult each other?  This is important to know, if you ever find yourself sucked back through a time portal.  So, leaving out some inappropriately vulgar ones, here are a few common insults in Old Icelandic:

dunga (DOON-gah) — a useless fellow
eldhúsfífl (EHLD-hoos-feef-uhl) — “hearthfire idiot”, an idiot who sits by the fire all day, a good-for-nothing
fífl (FEEF-uhl) — fool, idiot
gløggvingr (GLOHG-ving-uhr) — stingy person
hraumi (HROWM-ee) — braggart
níðingr (NEETH-ing-uhr) — villain, vile person
slápr (SLAHP-uhr) — a good-for-nothing, lazy person
vámr (VAHM-uhr) — loathsome person
vargdropi (VAHRG-drohp-ee) — son of an outlaw* 
veslingr (VEHS-ling-uhr) — puny wretch

*NOTE: vagr (“outlaw”) also means “wolf”.  The Norse weren’t fond of wolves.

It was also popular to call people after various animals, such as dogs or sows, or to say that they were the sons or daughters of these animals.

But beware!  If you start throwing these insults around in Viking Age Scandinavia, you’d better hope the button on your time portal wristband isn’t broken!

(My gratitude to the members of the Old Norse Yahoo! group norse_course for their posts on this subject.)

What Was It Like to be a Gay Viking?

I’ve been posting a lot about being gay in a Christian world lately, because it is after all what most young people in this country have to deal with as they’re coming to terms with their sexuality.  But as I’ve stated in previous posts, I am no longer Christian.  Furthermore, religion in general isn’t the main thrust of this blog or of my YA novels.  No doubt relgion will come up again, but for now I thought I’d cover a topic that readers of Seidman might find interesting:

What Was It Like to be Gay in Viking Age Iceland and Scandinavia?

WARNING:  Though I’ve attempted to keep this discussion from becoming too graphic, it does contain some referrences to sexual practices.  It really couldn’t be avoided.  Anyone old enough to read Seidman (recommended 14+) should be old enough to read this post.

I’ve had people try to tell me that there were no gay people in the Viking Age.  This is flatly ridiculous.  First of all, there have always been people with same-sex attractions, throughout history, all over the world.  Always.  Anyone who thinks homosexuality suddenly appeared out of nothing in the past century simply hasn’t bothered to crack a book on the subject.

Secondly, we know that people experienced same-sex attraction in Viking Age cultures, because they had words to describe it and laws to regulate it.  You don’t make something illegal, if it doesn’t exist to begin with.

So how did the Norse actually feel about homosexuality?  Well, the answer is a bit complex.  In general, they didn’t approve of it, which isn’t much of a surprise.  But like many cultures, they mistakenly equated homosexuality with a lack of masculinity, as if being attracted to men (if you’re a man) somehow makes you behave in a “womanly” manner, and likewise being attracted to women (if you’re a woman) somehow makes you “mannish.”  (Obviously, this attitude is still with us in modern western culture.)

But this is where it got a little weird.

The key to understanding the Norse attitude towards same-sex attraction lies in their concept of “manliness.”  We don’t have much evidence one way or another that the Norse gave much thought to same-sex attraction or other forms of sexual contact besides anal intercourse between two people of the same gender.  But we do know that they were obsessed with manliness.

Men had to behave in a masculine fashion (and conversely, women had to behave in a feminine fashion).  Men who acted effeminitely really upset people and in some cases were put to death.  A similar fate awaited women who wore men’s clothing!  And for a man to be accused of being effeminite was a horrible insult — so horrible that the accuser could be challenged to a duel to the death, if he couldn’t prove his accusation, and the law would not protect him.

Two of the words commonly used to describe “effeminite” men in the Sagas are ergi (a noun) and argr (the adjectival form of ergi).  The definition of these words is uncertain, because they are used in so many contexts.  In general, it appeared to refer to a man allowing himself to be used sexually by another man.  (In other words, a man who took the passive role in anal intercourse.)  We might translate ergi as “effeminacy” and argr as “effeminate.”

But there were other usages that suggested somewhat different meanings.  For instance, when used to describe a woman, it meant that she was lecherous or immodest — in other words, too masculine.  It was also said that old age made a man argr and the god, Oðinn, was said to become argr after practicing seiðr.  (Technically, the phrasing was that the practice of seiðr was accompanied by a great degree of ergi.)  However, I seriously doubt that this meant old men suddenly turned gay or Oðinn became effeminite after performing trance magic.

What does make sense is that being old might make a man frail and performing trance magic might make a man feel temporarily weak.  As with the case of women who were called ergi or argr, the main implication appears to have been that a person was violating gender taboos.  The terms were also sometimes applied to men who were incapable of fathering children — another “failure” to be masculine — and argr was also synonymous with cowardice.

So the next question might be, did this association of ergi and argr with masculinity provide a loophole of sorts?  Did it mean that a man might have sex with other men, as long as he was still verifiably masculine?

It might have.

We know that Norsemen often violated male prisoners or slaves, and there did not appear to be a stigma associated with doing this.  (Yet it was still one more reason that being on the “bottom” had such a horrible stigma attached to it — because it was allowing another man to treat you like a slave or a defeated prisoner.)  We also know that there were male prostitutes who served men, and they seemed to have been regarded with contempt.  Yet men did avail themselves of their services.  And in Snorri Sturlusson’s Edda, a man named Sinfjotli boasts that he impregnated another man (as an insult to the second man), which might not be something he would boast about, if being a “top” had any great stigma attached to it.

So it may be that there were certain contexts in which sex between people of the same gender was considered acceptable or at least ignored.  Keep in mind that the only references we have to homosexuality concern accusations of anal intercourse.  We have no record at all of how the Norse felt about mutual masturbation or oral sex.

It was also not unheard of for men to live together as “bachelors” once they were past the age where they were expected to marry and father children.  While these would not have been open same-sex relationships, advanced age might have made it possible for others to look the other way.

One last point to keep in mind:  all of the information we have about Norse attitudes toward homosexuality comes from Christians who wrote about the Viking Age centuries after the events they were describing, and by this point homosexuality was widely condemned by the Christian Church.  It’s difficult to know how much the writers’ personal religious beliefs may have colored their accounts of their ancestors.

Resources:

Probably the best source of information on this subject is Preben M. Sørenson’s The Unmanly Man:  Concepts of Sexual Defamation in Early Northern Society, but that can be hard to come by and it’s somewhat dry reading.  A more accessible discussion of the subject can be found at the Viking Answer Lady site:

The Viking Answer Lady doesn’t appear to be updating her site anymore, which is sad, because she really knows her stuff.  But as long as the site is still up, it’s a fantastic reference for a lot of aspects of Norse culture.