The Kings in Winter

Written by Cecelia Holland
Review by Lisa Ann Verge

In 999 AD, Brian Boru, the King of Munster, destroyed the army of his hereditary enemy, the King of Leinster.  After the victory, Brian became High King of Ireland and forgave the rebel, who paid tribute and retained his title.  Maelmordha remained peaceful until 1011.  Then, insulted by Brian’s son, he appealed to the Danes for help.  A new war began to brew.

Into this power struggle Cecelia Holland injects Muirtagh, chieftain of a fictional mountain clan.  Muirtagh is a man who struggles to “graze his goats safely between two packs of wolves.”  He is a pacifist at heart, yet he is also an Irish chieftain charged with repaying ancient blood debts.  He is the ó Cullinane, yet it is his younger brother who is the true warrior, having earned the name “Danekiller” from the Vikings themselves.  Even Muirtagh’s lands lie between enemies, on the shifting border between Leinster, his rebel friend Maelmordha’s territory, and Meath, the homeland of his clan’s blood rivals, the Mac Mahons.

Within the halls of Tara, with all of Ireland’s kings listening, Muirtagh forgives the Mac Mahons, whose clan had massacred Muirtagh’s father and much of his family twenty years earlier.  No man could remember the source of the feud – Muirtagh wants the bloodshed to end.  But the Mac Mahons refuse his forgiveness, call him a coward, and hound him into his own territory.  Muirtagh appeals to Brian Boru to intervene, but the High King, knowing of Muirtagh’s friendship with Maelmordha, questions his loyalty.  Finally, Maelmordha, allied with the hated Danes, appeals to Muirtagh for aid.  As the armies approach Clontarf in 1014, Muirtagh is forced to make desperate choices.

Holland writes stark prose, heavy in dialogue, and the characters she creates are mighty creatures with distinct voices.  Though slow to start, in part because of the large cast of characters and the unusual names, once past the awkwardness the pacing picks up.  Holland has a brilliant grasp of the details of the day-to-day lives of these farmer/chieftains, and she weaves them seamlessly into the text.  The Kings in Winter is a great study of a character in conflict and a recommended read for lovers of Irish history.