The best books for Northern Lands

Who am I?

I first experienced the silvery light of the far north in Lapland in 1970 on a university expedition. I had never been anywhere wholly wild before. I was hooked. In the Faroes I discovered the true force of the Atlantic Ocean. The obvious place to settle was Shetland, where I worked in the library and discovered the sagas. Summers spent volunteering on a Viking excavation on the island of Papa Stour inspired my first novel. I became a historical novelist with a particular interest in the liminal spaces where peoples and cultures live on the edges Then came Greenland, Vinland, Hy Brasil… there is no end to exploration, even now.


I wrote...

Book cover of The Sea Road

What is my book about?

What was Gudrid really like? The sagas say she grew up by the volcano Snaefel, in a culture of feuding and farming in tenth-century Iceland. She was among the early Norse settlers of Greenland, and maybe the first European woman to give birth in North America. She had at least two husbands; she made her own pilgrimage to Rome. There are many strong women in the sagas, and Gudrid is a kinder character than most. However, as far as first-person narratives go, women’s voices are silent.

The Sea Road gives Gudrid her own voice, as she experiences the tensions between families, between desire and duty, pagan and Christian, her own people and the unknown Skraelings, and finally between the living and the dead. 

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Vinland Sagas

Margaret Elphinstone Why did I love this book?

This thin volume, containing Graenlendinga Saga and Eirik’s Saga, is perfect for carrying around Iceland and Greenland in one’s pocket or re-living dangerous voyages to the edges of the known world in armchair comfort. With typical sparse understatement, these sagas cover the Norse colonisation of Greenland and Vinland. And what a story: vibrant characters, feuds, violence, courage, and extraordinary adventure. Is it all true? Archaeology says broadly ‘yes’; Icelanders remember saga incidents as if they’d happened yesterday. I can’t but see these ultra-masculine journeys through the eyes of Gudrid, possibly the first Norse woman to reach North America. Gudrid is the heroine of The Sea Road, a feisty, much-married adventurer who, in my reading, stands at the heart of these sagas.

By Unknown, Keneva Kunz (translator),

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Vinland Sagas as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?



The Saga of the Greenlanders and Eirik the Red's Saga contain the first ever descriptions of North America, a bountiful land of grapes and vines, discovered by Vikings five centuries before Christopher Columbus. Written down in the early thirteenth century, they recount the Icelandic settlement of Greenland by Eirik the Red, the chance discovery by seafaring adventurers of a mysterious new land, and Eirik's son Leif the Lucky's perilous voyages to explore it. Wrecked by storms, stricken by disease and plagued by navigational mishaps, some survived the North Atlantic to pass down this compelling tale of the first Europeans to…


Book cover of Land Under the Pole Star

Margaret Elphinstone Why did I love this book?

Why would I carry a one-kilo hardback around Greenland and Newfoundland on my back? Because Helge Ingstad was the archaeologist who discovered and excavated L’Anse Aux Meadowes, the first archaeological corroboration of Norse settlement in North America. Also because Land Under the Pole Star does the sort of sea exploration I have only dreamed about, following the Viking voyagers to Greenland and Vinland (wherever that was; personally I find Ingstad’s theories convincing). Not too colonial or patriarchal for modern sensibilities, Ingstad’s project is to relate the old Norse texts to what he finds on the ground. He’s an acute, sympathetic observer of Greenlandic life. I couldn’t have found a better guide, and if you like northern journeys with a scholarly purpose, this is the very book.

By Helge Ingstad,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Land Under the Pole Star as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

pp. 381, black and white photographs, index. "'Land Under the Pole Star' is the exploration reading and historical detection to absorb the general reader and fill vital historical gaps for the expert. And throughout it is an evocative picture of a robust, long-lost society, which holds many important keys to our past." previous owners bookplate…


Book cover of Independent People

Margaret Elphinstone Why did I love this book?

Perhaps Asta Sollilja is the fictional heroine who haunts me the most - even more than Gudrid. Her sufferings are the result of accumulative bitter ironies on a saga scale, but Asta Sollilja has a capacity for love that isn’t evident in the strong women of the Medieval sagas. She has a different kind of strength. Born into poverty-stricken rural Iceland in the early 1900s, Asta Sollilja is raised the hard way by her stepfather Bjartur, the central character of the novel. Bjartur’s harsh struggle as an independent sheep farmer is emblematic of Iceland (national independence came in 1944). However, for me, the heart of the novel is the desperate tension between father and daughter, a life-and-death struggle if ever there was one.

By Halldor Laxness,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked Independent People as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Set in Iceland, this story is imbued with the lyrical force of medieval ballads and Nordic myth.


Book cover of The Sealwoman's Gift

Margaret Elphinstone Why did I love this book?

Icelanders still remember how in 1627 Algerian pirates carried off around 400 people, including nearly everyone from Heimaey. Archives record that Asta ∂orsteinsdottir and pastor Olaf Egilsson and their children were among them. Just how traumatic would that be, to have not only yourself but, worse, your beloved family, snatched from home and sold into slavery? What are the chances of ever seeing your children again? Yet history shows repeatedly that human beings will suffer almost anything, and survive. Another powerful daughter of the sagas, Sally Magnusson’s Asta never lets go of who she is, and yet she is torn… who wouldn’t be? The feeling of soft silk trousers against her skin, compared with harsh heavy Icelandic wool - for me that encapsulates just how confusing loyalty and identity can be.

By Sally Magnusson,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Sealwoman's Gift as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'A remarkable feat of imagination... I enjoyed and admired it in equal measure' Sarah Perry, author of The Essex Serpent
'An extraordinarily immersive read, that emphasises the power of stories, examining themes of motherhood, identity, exile and freedom ... a journey that not only crosses continents, but encompasses tragedy and rich sensuality' Guardian
'A powerful tale of Barbary pirates ... richly imagined.' Sunday Times
'Engrossing' Sunday Express 'Fascinating ... a really, really good read' BBC R2 Book Club
'The best sort of historical novel.' Scotsman 'A lyrical tale' Stylist
'A poetic retelling of Icelandic history.' Daily Mail 'Compelling stuff' Good…


Book cover of Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow

Margaret Elphinstone Why did I love this book?

The sudden death of a small boy in the impoverished Greenlandic community in Copenhagen precipitates Smilla’s enquiries into a mysterious network of contacts and undefined interests. Accident or murder? Smilla loved young Isaiah; she needs to know why. Her anger, tenacity, and curiosity lead her inexorably into danger. Love is the route to loss and betrayal. But Smilla is a Greenlander, and she knows all about snow; she can name everything in this frozen world. The closer she gets to home, the more perilous the journey, and the more Smilla knows where she is: “If you haven’t grown up in this landscape, it uses up your strength.” This is much more than a scary thriller; it’s about facing powerful odds and knowing who you are.

By Peter Høeg,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The original Scandinavian thriller

One snowy day in Copenhagen, six-year-old Isaiah falls to his death from a city rooftop.The police pronounce it an accident. But Isaiah's neighbour, Smilla, an expert in the ways of snow and ice, suspects murder. She embarks on a dangerous quest to find the truth, following a path of clues as clear to her as footsteps in the snow.


You might also like...

Unsettled

By Laurie Woodford,

Book cover of Unsettled

Laurie Woodford

New book alert!

What is my book about?

At the age of forty-nine, Laurie Woodford rents out her house, packs her belongings into two suitcases, and leaves her life in upstate New York to relocate to Seoul, South Korea. What begins as an opportunity to teach college English in Asia evolves into a nomadic adventure.

Laurie spoon-feeds orphans in Ethiopia, performs 108 bows at a Buddhist mountain temple, walks shelter dogs in Peru, milks goats in Fuerteventura, and gets lost in Mexico, all the while navigating dating at midlife.

After four years of traveling, Laurie’s return “home” becomes an unexpected adventure of its own when she ends up in Arkansas and meets Bruce, a bird-loving, bearded Quaker, and then struggles to reconcile her need for freedom with her longing to feel settled.

Unsettled

By Laurie Woodford,

What is this book about?

At the age of forty-nine, driven by an urgent restlessness, Laurie Woodford rents out her house, packs her belongings into two suitcases, and relocates to Asia. What begins as an opportunity to teach college English overseas, evolves into a nomadic adventure as Laurie works and volunteers in South Korea, Ethiopia, Peru, Spain, and Mexico. After four years of traveling, Laurie's return "home" to the U.S. becomes an unexpected adventure of its own when she ends up in Arkansas and meets Bruce, a bird-loving, bearded Quaker, who challenges her to reconcile her life of fierce independence with her longing to feel…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Iceland, Greenland, and explorers?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Iceland, Greenland, and explorers.

Iceland Explore 59 books about Iceland
Greenland Explore 24 books about Greenland
Explorers Explore 92 books about explorers