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Under the Mound
by Cynthia Heinrichs
AGES: 12 & up
PAGES: 454
SIZE: 5.5 x 8.5
PRICES: $17.95 US | $19.95 CAN
HARDCOVER: 978-1-897476-62-8

Quill and Quire, John Wilson

Vancouver author Cynthia Heinrichs’ second book is a radical departure from her picture-book debut, Mermaids. Using Norse sagas, runes carved on an ancient Orkney tomb, and generous doses of imagination, Heinrichs has crafted a long, complex story that is part historical fiction, part mystery and part fantasy.

            In the winter of 1153, young Malcolm is sent north by his father to help Earl Harald regain his kingdom in the Orkney Isles. He travels with a mixed bunch of Norsemen and Scots who, when not laughing at Malcolm, spend their time eating, drinking, fighting and telling stories.

            As they head north, Malcolm overhears a conversation that convinces him there are plots afoot and a spy in their ranks. After a blizzard traps some of the men in an ancient burial mound (a detail rooted in Orkney legend) the tension escalates and Malcolm is troubled by strange dreams. In one, the old Norse gods come alive, undermining Malcolm’s Christian beliefs and showing him that he is a receptacle for ancient powers.

            Under the Mound is an exciting book, but it tries to be too many things. Odin and the other Norse spirits are very real; they tip the book into fantasy when its strength is its basis in history. And Malcolm starts out a bit too modern, naïve and sensitive for a 15-year-old coming of age in the harsh 12th century.

            Despite the help offered by a character list at the beginning, the tale is convoluted and Malcolm’s confusion at what is happening to him is sometimes mirrored in the reader. A slow start will also likely make this a tough go for younger teens without a solid background or interest in Norse mythology and Orkney archaeology. 


Winnipeg Free Press:

Under the Mound by Cynthia Heinrichs (Simply Read Books, 300 pages, $20) also deals with Norse myths.
It is told through the eyes of Malcolm, a 15-year-old boy who would rather whittle wood than wield a sword, but who grows to manhood as he follows Earl Harald on his quest for power in the 12th century.
Malcolm discovers he has an ability to communicate with the spirits that haunt the mound and threaten to annihilate the warriors who have taken shelter inside.


CM Magazine:

Malcolm mac Alasdair is only a youth when his father sends him to serve the Earl of Orkney in order to help him regain the lands his cousin has taken from him. Malcolm is not at all suited to be a warrior, nor does he understand the political intrigues which swirl around him. He is tormented by the older men who think he is weak, untrustworthy and perhaps even mad. Malcolm almost doubts himself, especially when dreams and visions force him to act in ways he would never have imagined mere weeks ago at home with his family.

      The novel is set in Scotland and Orkney during the winter of 1153. Heinrichs's descriptions help her readers feel the cold and the hunger, see a landscape which is both beautiful and terrifying, and smell a band of warriors, some Scots and some Viking, as they shelter in the mound of Orkahaugr during a violent, life-threatening snowstorm. Within this historical setting, Heinrichs weaves various tales taken from Norse mythology. Thorir the poet tells stories of Odin and the spirit world, and Malcolm's dreams mirror a mixture of both the real and the supernatural.

      Under the Mound is a saga with lots of intrigue and action as well as a large cast of characters. While Malcolm is central to the novel, readers also meet a variety of the Scots and Vikings who have set out to aid Earl Harald in his quest. They fulfill many roles: the poet, the schemer, the peace-maker, the adviser and so on. Like Malcolm, readers must judge who can be trusted. There are few female characters in the novel, but they are strong and include Margaret, mother of Earl Harald and plotter extraordinaire, and Sigrith, a young Orkney woman who proves to be both brave and intelligent.

      The quest theme is predominant in the book as the entire tale centres on Earl Harald's desire to reclaim his rightful inheritance. Equally important is Malcolm's own journey, a sort of vision quest, which takes him more and more deeply into himself and teaches him what it means to confront one's fears and overcome them. In his father's words near the beginning of the novel, "They don't call Orkney the Islands of the Boar for nothing, my son. You must be strong as a boar to survive it. If Orkney does not break you, it will make you a man". (page 23)

      Young readers who prefer a plot-driven novel will enjoy Under the Mound. It is lengthy, with perhaps more description than is necessary to move the plot to its conclusion. As well, there are more than 30 characters, many with similar names, which may be confusing for young readers. Five earls and various kings are mentioned, and this calls for close attention by the reader in order to keep everyone in place. Fortunately, Heinrichs has supplied a list of characters to help readers know who's who and has also included two maps (Scotland and Orkney) to help clarify the plot.

      For readers who like to delve into a long book and become immersed in another time and place, Under the Mound is an excellent choice.



Resource Links review, Under the Mound


This is the second of two books by Cynthia Heinrich published in the fall of 2011, the first being a picture book about Korean kelp divers. This second book is a hypothetical story that extrapolates from an enigmatic statement about a real 4000 year-old burial mound situated in the Orkney Islands, off the north coast of Scotland. The story takes place in the middle of the 12th century when a band of Viking/Scottish invaders is caught in a nasty storm.

The group seeks refuge in the deep mound through a hole in the top. Only later do they find the real entrance. All this is recorded through the auspices of a young Scot whose father had sent him with the group without an adequate explanation of why he did so. It turns out that the boy’s father has second sight and has not told him until now. The nascent conflict between old and new faith is further complicated for the boy when his only ally in the group is an admitted disciple of Odin.

The story is part historical fiction, part fantasy and part examination of the growing Christian faith vis-à-vis ancient Norse legends, gods and beliefs. It is an ambitious work and for the most part it succeeds. It’s just that the story takes on too much and tends to get lost in itself. The descriptions of the ancient mound are wonderfully accurate and the tension between the young man’s Christian upbringing and the growing presence of Norse influences in the mound is admirable, but then the writing gets too involved in “telling” the story instead of letting the story tell itself. The narrator’s epilogue sounds more like relief than summary, and one wishes the calm of the epilogue could have influenced the main story just a little bit. I found the story worthwhile and have recommended it to mature readers.

Thematic Links: Norse Sagas; Orkney Islands; Scottish History



Around an eldritch incident recorded in the Orkneyinga Saga, Heinrichs spins a 12th-century coming-of-age tale rich in both political intrigue and supernatural visitations.

Dispatched by his roaring father to join a company gathered by young earl Harald Maddadson, who is out to regain control of Orkney from a usurper, Malcolm Mac Alasdair is cast into a maelstrom of political maneuvering and murky alliances. When part of the expedition is forced by a storm to take refuge in an old barrow, he finds himself engaged as well in a deadly struggle with the tomb’s raging occupant. Though the verbal sparring among Harald’s advisors and positively Shakespearean family (his mother Margaret makes Lady Macbeth look like Mother Teresa) does tend to go on, the author counters with plenty of rousing scenes on wild seas and windy moors. Woven throughout are streams of prophetic visions capped by climactic encounters with Odin and his Wild Hunt. By the end, Malcolm has outgrown his petulance and naïveté, broadened his initially parochial Christian outlook and seen Harald on his way to a long and relatively peaceful reign.

Fantasy elements aside, this saga is reminiscent of a Rosemary Sutcliff novel in plot, themes, cast and overall tone. (Historical fantasy. 12-14)


Midwest Book Review

In a darker era, uncertainty was the only thing that was certain. "Under the Mound" is a historical novel from Cynthia Heinrichs, a dramatization of the Orneyinga Saga where a snowstorm leads to madness and tragedy. Setting the story behind Malcolm, an unwarlike individual in a time of war, sees much of the world in this oft forgotten era. "Under the Mound is a choice pick for fans of historical fiction, highly recommended.