Book Review: RIVER KINGS by Cat Jarman

Title in white on grey stone with blue water above and wood and yellow bwlo
Genre: Non-Fiction History
Age Range: Adult
Star Rating: 4 stars
Series: standalone


Book cover for RIVER KINGS: title in white on

One June day late in the eighth century, Norse seafarers arrived at the English island of Lindisfarne. They waged a savage attack on its unsuspecting abbey, and with this, the Age of the Vikings was born. These roving pillagers spent the next few hundred years raiding and trading a path across Northern and Western Europe. Except, that’s not quite true. It’s just a convenient place to start the story – a story that has seen radical new discoveries over the past few years.

Dr Cat Jarman works on the cutting edge of bioarchaeology, using forensic techniques to research the paths of Vikings who came to rest in British soil. By examining teeth that are now over one thousand years old, she can determine childhood diet, and thereby where a specimen was likely born. With radiocarbon dating, she can ascertain a death date down to the range of a few years.

In 2012, a carnelian bead came into her temporary possession. River King sees her trace its path back to eighth-century Baghdad, discovering along the way that the Vikings’ route was far more varied than we might think, that with them came people from the Middle East, not just Scandinavia, and that the reason for all this unexpected integration between the Eastern and Western worlds may well have been a slave trade running through the Silk Road, and all the way to Britain.

Blurb taken from Goodreads. Add to your shelves here.


RIVER KINGS is a fascinating look at the Vikings through their travels, from Britain and Ireland to Russia and Turkey. It takes incredibly modern technologies (DNA analysis and isotope analysis) to shed light on a people long gone to break out existing tales to see what truth lies in them.

This is one of the more readable non-fiction books I’ve read in a while. It is engaging with a clear narrative (tracing trade and movement of people), and rarely getting lost in the weeds of two much detail. There are just enough examples and explanations to ensure you not only get the message trying to be communicated but also believe there is a validity to that view. (Plus the book is very honest when it comes to uncertainties or where historical and racial/ethnonationalistic biases can impact “conclusions.”)

The book is built around the idea of trade, tracing object’s histories and origins to give an idea of the people who moved them to their final location – and why. There is the bead at the heart of the story, but also silver coins and neck rings and decorative elements.

There are also bones and teeth (used for the radioactive analysis and dating.) As someone who studies radiation detection and monitoring, I really liked the focus on that! And though the principles were really well explained to be clear, understandable for those without the background in radioactive decay principles but also pitched in such a way that I wasn’t rolling my eyes and telling the book that it was oversimplifying etc.

Each chapter starts with a little reimagining of how an object came to be in a location, how it might have been used, or how it was found. I enjoyed these “fictional” parts as they helped to bring the world.

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