My review contains spoilers and they're mostly my thoughts as I went with the book...
Reading Gina Conkle’s debut novel, Norse Jewel, felt indeed like discovering a jewel. When I requested for the ARC, honestly it was because of the nice cover as GC was a new-to-me author. But, she totally had me at Hakan and Helena’s first meeting, so much so that I think I spend the whole time in a trance. Norse Jewel was a pure feel-good romance, from top to bottom... till the end. I loved the storyline, the era, GC’s writing and her portrayal of the ancient Vikings. Lest not forget about our H Hakan the Tall (and Sexy *heehee*) and the adorable h, Helena who also made my reading worthwhile.
Helena is a Frankish noble woman who was kidnapped by the Danes. The Danes raided her village, lighting it on fire and killing the innocent. Helena had no idea how bad it was because she was promptly taken to the slave market to be sold. She was engaged to her someone in the village, whom she thought she loved and yet, the cowardly man took refuge in his parents’ stone castle while the Danes kidnapped his betrothed. Helena, of course, didn’t see things that way at first. At present, she’s scared, restless, not knowing what is going to happen to her. She cherished her betrothed gift. When one of the meaner Danes wanted to snatch it away from her, Helene got a cut on a side of her face for trying to save it from him. Helena learned early from incidents happening around the camp that she has no hope of escape. The only friend she had there, Sestra, keeps giving her advice of using her body to the maximum to get the security of a reasonably good master or protector. There are some nobleman sure does treat their thralls better than the rest. Sestra is a sassy thing, and she knows how to use her body. She’s more than disappointed at Helena for not taking her ‘sage advice’.
On the first scene, we find Helena and Sestra on the slave market, waiting to be sold. A restless Helena keeps tracing people with her eyes, but Setra’s advice is something she doesn’t know if she can implement. At one point, one man catches her eyes like no other; tall, big and strong, an obvious leader of men. People are bowing to him when they address him, and yet he seems pretty oblivious. Helena’s eyes keep tracing him while her body tells her it wants him too. If he’d have her, she’d like to try. Helena knows a little Norse, and she finds the tall, blonde man talking to an equally tall, but broader guy with dark hair and eyes. He keeps calling the blonde man Hakan. Helena is interested to know what they’re talking about. She hears that Hakan is looking for a woman to look after his farm, possibly someone middle-aged. As he speaks to the others, his warrior instincts warn him that someone is watching him intently, which Helena was. She was practically devouring him with her eyes, though it wasn’t to attract him. Or maybe, at her subconscious level it was! At one point, Hakan looks directly towards her, right at her eyes and Helena is entranced by the hold of his look. I just LOVED that scene!
Hakan felt the thrall’s eyes devouring him too, and to his very core. And he was more alert about it because it was not a good sign. Orphaned as a young boy, Hakan was taken in by King Olof who had been his replaced father for a while, until he left to fight for Svea, explore the world and become a man. Hakan has been betrayed by woman; one woman specifically, his ex-wife Astrid, the most beautiful woman of Svea. He was more than ecstatic when she chose to marry him over another guy named Gorm. But happiness proved elusive once Astrid became pregnant and started being hard on Hakan. He didn’t like her attitude and more often than not, being away at the King’s order, fighting for his homeland, Hakan couldn’t have imagined what Astrid is up to in his absence. To his utter astonishment, when he returns from one of his journeys only to find himself divorced! Astrid was indeed cheating on him while he was away. This whole issue left such a bitter taste on Hakan that he vowed he’ll never marry again. The only good thing that came from that sh!tty marriage was his 8 yrs old son Erik. A son he loves more than anything, a son his mother won’t let him see; not without demanding something in return.
So Hakan wasn’t in a good mood and yet, that thrall convinces him that he should buy her. He definitely found Helena attractive, even though she wasn’t exactly prettied up. Knowing this wasn’t a good idea Hakan was still caught in her dark blue eyes, as much as she was in his ice-blue ones. It was an undeniable attraction that neither could deny. Hakan also detected her fear of the Dane slave-masters. That mark on her face particularly warns Hakan, making him instantly protective of her. So, Hakan buys Helena and was eager to be home since it’s been quite a long time and he was missing Erik much. But before they set sail, Sven brings the news that Gorm has been making trouble in Svea once more. This news darkens Hakan’s mood, also the fact that Astrid would demand something new to let him see Erik. He needed to reach Svea fast, and so, he orders his men to row as fast as they can.
The more Helena’s homeland faded away from her, the more she felt alone, except for her odd infatuation over the ruggedly handsome chieftain. He is smart, active (if his muscled body gave her any indication), and kind without a doubt. Setra was bought by Sven, so she is also accompanying Helena and they can spend time together. They were fed and given hudfats to sleep in, something that kept them warm at night. Helena didn’t like the dark and enclosed space under the deck so she spends most of her time on the deck, watching the activities around her, but mostly watching Hakan. At one point, Sven reminds Hakan that he’s pushing his men too much, and it’s taking a toll. After acknowledging the fact, Hakan gives the men respite for a night at a nearby port. But he stays behind to look after the ship. Helena doesn’t like it that they bind her before leaving, no matter how gentle the knot was. It only reminded her of her newly achieved station in life; that of the chieftain’s thrall and nothing else.
Now, there was a funny scene ahead. Helena wanted to have a bath. Since she got that she and Setra won’t be going to the land, she requests for a bath from Hakan. Hakan obliges her though somewhat cooly. Helena is incensed that she doesn’t even have a little privacy since the chieftain decides to sit near and keep watch. Thinking he doesn’t understand Frankish, Helena keeps saying whatever came to her mind, which starts with “You. Are. A. Lout.”... and so goes on her muttering. A few times she cast surreptitious glances, Hakan’s face showed nothing so she thought she was safe in this. But, when he later replies her something in halted Frankish, a surprised Helena finds amusement shining in his otherwise stolid face… well, that was priceless. :D
Hakan shows more kindness by never beating or harassing Helena, unlike other masters. Soon enough, they reach Svea. Helena was trying to take in the beautiful lands, the greens and hills, when she is needed to take care of the livestock Hakan carried in his ship. That was another scene where one of Helena’s remarks makes him laugh. There are scenes like that aplenty in this book that made me smile more than once. Hakan takes Helena to his eldest sister’s home first. Mardred has been married a long time and has daughters of her own. She instantly takes to Helena, showing kindness that overwhelms her. Too soon, Hakan is called away even before he could take Helena to his own farm. So it’s up to Mardred now to show Helena her new home.
Helena befriends Mardred’s daughters to some extent and saves them from an attack. In return, she requests Halsten, Mardred’s husband, to talk to Hakan about her freedom. When she’s taken to Hakan’s farmstead and longhouse, Helena finds a drab looking place that is much in need of a woman’s touch. Which is what Helena sets out to do; taking care of Hakan’s farm and home, not knowing she’s actually building a home for him to come to. She paints, cleans, washes, whatever it is required of her. Hakan’s men are helpful, and so, in no time Helena makes the place more than livable. When Hakan finally returns, he’s taken aback by the changes, that his home now certainly feels like home; warm and cozy, with a woman he can look forward coming home to... Wait a min.! Hakan doesn’t want to remarry, so what can Helena become to him? Inside the longhouse, Hakan is surprised by Helena’s audacity at looking into his boxes. It was fun to see Hakan having such warring emotions. He should be mad at her for prying, yet he wasn’t. The mention of dried herbs hanging on his swords sounded distinctly like as if Helena is settling in, certainly a BIG change for a warrior like Hakan.
Hakan and Helena start bonding as they spend more time together. There were a lot of scenes I liked in this part, most of all, was their easy companionship, when they weren’t arguing that is. Hakan was trying to become the farmer he always wanted to be, working in his farm and often spending time watching Helena work at a distance. Helena loves working with clothes, be it making them or mending them. She is now making better, softer clothes that amazed people around the farm, including Hakan. Hakan gave her whatever she needed to pursue her passion. What he didn’t like was her wishes to return to her homeland one day. I couldn’t blame Helena for wanting her freedom. She missed her home, her parents, maybe even her worthless fiancé, though every time she compared him to Hakan, he failed miserably. Even though Hakan reminded her more than once that she was living better than most thralls out there, and made this ridiculous 7 yrs. deal with Helena (no doubt intending that she’d forget about it in time), Helena still was a thrall. And she didn’t want to be known as one. Moreover, their attraction was so palpable. Their kisses tell them a lot of things but Helena can’t totally give into it, knowing what it might mean. Can she ever give into Hakan, knowing that he doesn’t want marriage?
Soon Erik escapes from his mother’s clutches to be with his father. Hakan is more than pleased to have his son with him after a long time. I loved how smart Helena was, how she was so attuned to what Hakan wanted. She knew when to give privacy, when not to pry. Helena was the epitome of quiet strength and grace. Even though she felt she was envious of the place Erik takes in Hakan’s life, Helena knew it was totally illogical. No wonder soon enough little Erik accepts her as a part of their life, even if as a ‘thrall’ of his father. The more Helena was reminded of this, the more resolved she became to gain her freedom.
After a few days, Hakan sends Erik away to his mother, though he knew he’d fight to have his son with him in the coming Althing. It’ll be a public spectacle, but Astrid is not going let Erik be with Hakan as per their norm. On the other hand, Hakan’s possessiveness towards Helena couldn’t be denied any longer because he couldn’t hide it. Hakan gladly takes her to a big gathering. Helena dresses herself up as a noblewoman, looking pretty because Hakan wanted it. When Helena begins helping Setra to serve the people there, Hakan tells her that she should be with him, especially in a rowdy gathering like this one. But it was clear as daylight that Hakan simply wanted her with him. At that gathering is where Helena first meets Astrid, who is as beautiful as it’s rumored. She appears with Gorm, the man with whom she cheated on Hakan. All know that they’re together, but Gorm hasn’t married her yet. Helena instantly feels how cold and ambitious Astrid is and oh, so wrong for someone so emotional like Hakan. She certainly detects the hurt Astrid dealt to Hakan when he joins Helena. The next scene… ah! I absolutely enjoyed what Helena does to rile Astrid up when they were about to leave the gathering. *grins*
Hakan was growing much frustrated about this intense desire he felt for Helena, yet trying to do ‘the right thing’. Then Olof announces that he wants to talk to Hakan about something important. As they dine in Hakan’s longhouse, the King informs him that a rebellion is forming. There were already some discontents about the King’s more Christian ways rather than their Old ones. Right now, Olof is helpless because his own son, Anund Jakob is involved in it. And sure enough, Gorm is the person who is controlling him. The King also reveals some disturbing news regarding Hakan’s parents’ death all those years ago. Hakan is stunned speechless. He already remembered Gorm being there, lurking. Hakan knew that Gorm did it. And yet, when no one believed him back then, after a while even Hakan thought maybe he has imagined things. The King also hints at some more secrets he’s keeping but not prepared to divulge. Now he wants Hakan to fight for Svea once again, something Hakan thought was a part of his past already. Can he ever live that ‘simple’ life he always craved for? Later, Hakan opens up about the whole matter to Helena, whose heart was already aching for him. All Helena wanted was to comfort him, though she knew he won’t welcome it in the mood he was in.
On the day he leaves on this mission, Hakan gives Helena a possessive kiss. Their parting wasn’t a happy one because Helena was still adamant about her freedom. She hears him and Sven talking about her as if she’s interchangeable; reminding her again that she can’t live like that. Later as he was departing, she requests Hakan to free her if she can bring Erik back to him. An angry (and frustrated) Hakan somewhat agrees to this. After he goes away, Helena makes plans to convince Astrid to return Erik. I really liked what Helena did, knowing Astrid’s certain weaknesses. She gives away her betrothed gift too. Erik returns home soon afterwards.
When Hakan returns, it couldn’t have been clearer that he missed Helena a lot. By now, Helena has realized that she wants to start over... and shewants Hakan now. But when Hakan finds Erik, he knew he has to keep his word to her. His vulnerabilities made me ache for him, especially the thought that both women who gave him Erik doesn’t want anything to do with him. Later at night, after feast for the chieftain’s homecoming, Hakan and Helena has this talk that makes Hakan distant. He can’t say what he feels for her out loud and she doesn’t know what to do, but to ask for her freedom... once more. Oh, that was frustrating, to say the least. Hakan tells Helena that she has gained her freedom and that he’ll escort her to her homeland in a few days.
The journey to France was not a happy one for Helena and Hakan’s every emotion was in turmoil. He can’t think of living without Helena anymore, and yet, here she is, going home, leaving him forever. What about all those things they shared, the companionship, the lazy hours together… the kisses? Erik was accompanying them and is more than excited to be on his first voyage. But he’s also sad, realizing Helena is leaving. As her homeland nears, Helena starts feeling the despair. It goes high up when she finally reaches her village with Hakan and finds everything is total awry. I was so very sad for the shock she had to bear, one by one. It was only Hakan’s solid presence at her back made it possible for her to get through those.
As they take refuge in Helena’s ex-fiancé’s home, at night they share the barn together. Helena has already made up her mind to go back with Hakan. There is nothing here for her anymore, and more than anything, she knows now that she loves Hakan too much to leave him. Ah, then comes my most favorite scene of the book but alas, it was not cut short for my liking. Their kisses and fondling, along with their vows of love made me melt. I only wish there were love scenes in this book. I mean Hakan was portrayed so sexy, and I adored both him and Helena. It was only natural that I wanted to see their love consummated. Unfortunately, I was disappointed on that regard. Also, the ending was pretty abrupt, because as they return from the village, Hakan and Helena hear the news of a big unrest in Svea and some disturbing information about Sven.
I was craving for more of the story when the author confirmed me that there will be a sequel titled Norse Fire. I couldn’t have been happier!
Overall, Norse Jewel was warm and rich, both in portraying emotion and in its description of the ancient Nordic cultures. 4.5 stars, as you can see I absolutely enjoyed it! Highly recommended.
This ARC was provided to me by Entangled Publishing, LLC/Entangle Scandalous via netgalley which didn’t influence my review and rating in any way.