I make no apologies for liking my books with a dash of dragons or a whiff of ghosts. Ever since I discovered there was such a thing as a fantasy section at the library, I have been a faithful devotee of the genre. But every now and then, I like to venture a little further afield, and when I do, I often land in the historical fiction section.
My latest foray into a historical novel was a book that straddles the line between fiction and creative non-fiction. One part mystery did-she-do-it and one part psychological study, Burial Rites by Hannah Kent is a lyrical foray into nineteenth-century Iceland that imagines the events surrounding the life and death of Agnes Magnusdottir, a real woman who was charged with the brutal murder of her employer. After being convicted of the crime, Agnes is sent to await her execution at a remote farmstead. At first the farm family and the priest charged with saving her soul are repelled by the mysterious murderess in their midst, but soon the routine and hardship of life in such a harsh landscape brings them together and allows them to look back upon Agnes’ life and the series of decisions that brought them all together.
Agnes is a compelling character—a woman who seems to be ahead of the societal curve and desirous of a more modern life. An interesting female protagonist is often enough to carry me through a book regardless of other factors, but there were a number of elements present in Burial Rites that also made it appealing to me as a fan of fantasy fiction.
1. Location-Scouting for the Imagination
There is a reason why great works of fantasy take inspiration from Iceland, as it offers a landscape that is simultaneously stunningly beautiful and deadly. It is impossible to look at a photograph of Iceland and not imagine some mythic event taking place, whether it is the Viking kings of old launching their ships into the sea or trolls rising up out of the rocky hillsides. It is a landscape that gives birth to myth and legend—and we need only look as far as Tolkien to see the influence it has had on the fantasy genre. It’s no wonder that great swaths of Game of Thrones are filmed in Iceland, since it truly looks like a land that could be inhabited by White Walkers and Children of the Forest alike. Burial Rites captures the epic feel of the landscape, as represented by the vast and sometimes impenetrable distances between places and the epic struggle to survive in such an environment.
2. Do You Believe in Faeries?
In 1998, a survey showed that 54.4% of Icelanders believed in the existence of elves, and in 2013, there were protests of road construction that would disturb them. In the context of Burial Rites, we see numerous beliefs on display, from the presence of birds as portents to curses to the prophetic interpretation of dreams. One of the men Agnes is convicted of killing was a healer, and people often refer to him as a sorcerer and to Agnes as a witch. As a frequent reader of fantasy and magical realism, I kept expecting these beliefs to come to bear in some concrete way, but in this book, they remain subtle. The beliefs on display here are the stuff from which the magic in fantasy novels is made of and they infuse the narrative with eerie tension.
3. Once Upon a Time
Certain elements of Agnes’ story feel familiar. Born into a poor family, abandoned and left to fend for herself as a child, carried forward by ambition and a certain spark that others can’t help but notice—these are the elements that form the backstory of many young adventurers in imaginary lands. When a sorcerer comes along and offers her a better life, she takes a leap of faith and tries to forge a happily-ever-after. But there is no magic ring for Agnes, no loyal sidekick, and no happy ending. Her journey is told through the lens of history, and the real-life final destination stands in fascinating and tragic relief.
In many ways this is a quiet book, occupied with the daily work of staying warm and fed in a land where the long darkness is never far away. It concerns itself with the memories of a woman who has made the wrong choices for what seemed like the right reasons, and of the redemption of both her soul and her story. If you like your fantasy novels full of mystery, atmosphere, and survival, this might be an enjoyable foray into more realist historical fiction.
Burial Rites is available from Little, Brown and Company.
Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and storyteller. She has pursued studies in writing, folklore, and performance in the United States, Canada, England, Scotland and France. Past jobs include being an artistic director of storytelling performances, a fiber arts consultant, a legal document and poetry transcriber, and a shepherdess. She is an editor at Goblin Fruit, can sometimes be found discussing folklore and pop culture on the Fakelore Podcast and performing with the Banjo Apocalypse Crinoline Troubadours.