REVIEW: Daughter of the Sunset Isles by Dinah Dean
An epic journey of enlightenment, love, and discovering divine purpose, from Medieval England through to Denmark and Russia.
Gytha is the devout but determined daughter of the rightful king of England, until her world is turned upside down by the death of her father, King Harold. Fleeing from being forced into a nunnery, and determined to keep the spirit of her father alive by bearing sons to continue his line, Gytha seeks refuge with her uncle King Svein of Denmark.
But with the King’s health deteriorating, Gytha must marry. Her only offer is from a Prince living far to the east. So she prays and sets off on a perilous sea voyage into the unknown, and toward her future…
Rich with historical detail and Christian themes, Daughter of the Sunset Isles is based on the true story of a young woman finding her way in the medieval world with no place for women except in a nunnery or as a silent wife — neither of which Gytha will be!
CW – A pagan sacrifice is mentioned as having been done and the batshit crazy person in the story is a woman.
I first read this book about 15 years ago and liked it. But this reread polished an aspect that I didn’t pay as much attention to then and that is that this is Gytha’s story and the book is actually more women’s fiction. There are very few scenes that Gytha is not in and she, as much as women could be then, is the driver of her story. She makes two momentous decisions and they are pivotal to her life – to flee England and to take a risk and travel to find a husband in a land she knows almost nothing about. She could have played it safe, if confined, and not gambled but instead she goes big and refuses to let others decide her fate.
Dinah Dean tells the true story of “Princess” Gytha of England, daughter of Harold II (who lost to William Of Normandy at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 thereby giving rise to all kinds of Saxon maiden / Norman knight romances) and how she fled England after that battle, sought refuge with her Danish relatives then traveled to Russia to become the wife of Vladimir II Monomahk, Grand Duke of Kiev. She’s also a distant ancestress (through Philippa of Hainault) to both Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip. See, Harold won after all.
Anyway, Daughter of the Sunset Isles is more in the line of a historical novel rather than a romance even though it does have a romance in it. Gytha and Vladimir don’t even meet until more than halfway through the book and from the intense political climate in Russia at the time, would appear to have spent as much time apart as together. But it’s a fascinating view of life at that time and in a setting far removed from the norm.
Gytha is the daughter of Harold of Wessex and his “Danish marriage” wife Edith Swanneck. A “Danish marriage” was one in which a couple publicly announced their marriage but not one which was sanctioned by the Catholic Church and which could be (and in their case after 25 years of marriage was) set aside. Gytha has to watch her father reluctantly set aside the wife of his heart to make a political marriage, then ride off to defend his kingdom against William the Bastard, the man the Witan had not elected as king after the death of Edward the Confessor.
After the battle, William isn’t interested in leaving any of Harold’s children in a position to challenge his rule. At first Gytha receives word from two of William’s knights that she and her mother – whose mind was broken with grief and the shock of identifying Harold’s mutilated corpse after the battle – are to go to a convent. Gytha is made of sterner stuff and remembering how her father would pick the better action even if it’s not the easier one, she regally and definitely refuses, being backed up with the knowledge that the Church isn’t supposed to allow anyone’s hand to be forced into this choice. Her knowledge of reading and languages impresses the Norman knights who had both known and respected her father.
At the age of 13, Gytha makes a bold escape to her paternal grandmother’s relations in Denmark. It is after some years there that she finally gets a chance for a husband and family of her own in the far off, and up until then to her unknown land of the Rus. On the strength of his being literate, of a usually handsome family, and not mad, Gytha makes the arduous “River Road” journey to Novgorod. There she discovers just how intricate Russian politics are and just how much her married family loves to infight. She also finds a man she not only respects but comes to love and with whom she has seven sons and three daughters who go on to do great things. Well, maybe this isn’t exactly how it happened as the records are scarce but I like to think that Gytha and Vladimir did find their happiness together.
As a historical novel, Dean does her usual fine job but do remember that the romance is rather drier than we’re used to in more traditional romance books and that there is a lot of Russian history and a great deal of religion that some may find excessive. But it’s now in print again and easily available. B
Should readers decide to plunge into this story, they might want to brush up on Kievan Rus and the Volga Trade Route to have an idea of geography and what is going on once Gytha begins her journey to her new homeland.