Back when I was a teenager, and wild for anything medieval to read, I came across this book in the library. It had a nondescript binding, and was a little battered about the edges. But I was quickly drawn into the story of a young woman in Norway of the 14th century. The language was a little archaic, but very readable, and the characters were irresistible. The novel is three parts, and is usually available as a single omnibus hardbound edition, or as three separate paperbacks.
Sigrid Undset creates a believable world, where religion and magic exist by each other, where liniage and honor are what define a family's status. Her characters are very well rounded, passionate and believable, struggling against a hard land and the strictures that society sets upon them. They have flaws and personality traits that make them all the more endearing, because we can see ourselves in them.
Spoilers follow, so you might want to stop here.
The Bridal Wreath is the first volume, and we meet Kirstin and her parents, comfortably residing on their land. Kirstin is the joy and pride of her protective father, Lavrans, and we get to know both of them on a journey in the mountains. To seven year old Kirstin, this is a wonderful adventure, but at one point she wanders away and encounters a mysterious woman who holds out a crown of golden flowers to her. Frightened, she flees back to her father, who warns her of the elf-folk in the hills, waiting to entrap the unwary.
And we follow Kirstin to young adulthood, learning with her as tragedy strikes a younger sister, her melancholy mother, and her own struggles with the life that she is expected to lead, that one day she will marry the man that her parents select for her. Eventually she is betrothed to a young knight, Simon, and her life seems to be settled.
One day, Kirstin meets a handsome man, Erlend, who has a bit of an unsavory past. Despite knowing better, she falls in love with him, and risks everything to be with him. Needless to say, her family is not at all pleased by this, and between Kirstin and her father, a war of wills ensues…
A terrible crime finally binds Kirstin and Erlend together, and there is no turning back for either of them, and the novel culminates with Kirstin finally winning the man she desires. But will she be happy?
The Mistress of Husaby is the middle volume of the series. Having finally won out, Kirstin has married Erlend, and journeys with him to his estate of Husaby. Used to the comfortable and orderly life of her parents' home, the rundown manor is a shock to Kirstin, but she manages to cope, settling into a new home, along with the burden of almost continual pregnancy. Also, the bitter memories of her courtship with Erlend come back to haunt her, and the reader will see echoes of her mother's sadness in her. But she is devoted to her children, and to Erlend.
Too, a wider glimpse of the outside world comes to the viewer, of her husband heading off to make war with the Russians and Swedes, of unrest within Norway itself. Erlend's reputation is not of the best, and he matures very little in this novel, still being a bit of a rash youth, and leaving more and more of the burdens to Kirstin.
But eventually the marriage begins to falter, and Erlend's ambition runs greater than his skills and he is charged with treason. Now Kirstin stands to loose everything she has worked for, her home, her family and her husband…
The Cross Having lost their estate at Husaby, Kirstin and Erlend and their sons have gone to her parents' home to live. It's not as grand as their old home, and Erlend chafes at the loss of rank and wealth that has happened. Their sons are growing up as well, and they are showing that they are their father's sons as well. Throughout misfortune, Kirstin struggles on, loving her family, striving to hold it all together.
And then the Black Death arrives in Norway…
This is not an easy series to read. It is challenging in spots, but for a mature teenager, or an adult wanting some adventure, and what life might have been like in Scandinavia after the time of the Vikings, I can not recommend this book highly enough.