Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them provides an exhaustive look at the scholarship and speculation surrounding the “the Lewis Chessmen,” who made them, who found them, trade during the twelfth century, Norse travel patterns, art history, and a great deal more. What it does not discuss in much detail is the woman who may (or may not) have carved them. It is unfortunate, therefore, that the subtitle is what it is. It creates a desire to learn more of this mysterious woman artist, and Brown simply cannot satisfy that desire because very little is known about Margaret the Adroit–really, only enough to indicate that she existed.
Very little is truly known about the chessmen themselves. Not how many where found, where they were found or by whom, not when they were carved nor who carved them or used them. It is not even entirely certain that they are a set. This makes the book a survey of scholarship and sagas. Brown is careful in which sagas she uses, stating how likely they are to be historical versus more poetical and how close to the event discussed they were composed. Coupled with research into art history, she is able to provide a wide-ranging overview of scholarship on matters such as chess, travel during the thirteenth century and before, trade routes, old feuds, and art styles. The book is thus densely packed with information, one might almost say an overload. Sadly, that information does not come accompanied by many pictures. Frequent discussions of their beauty and a few black and white photographs substitute for the color photographs that would allow a reader to see the art under discussion.
Ivory Vikings is good for those who are curious about the Lewis Chessmen or who want an overview of art, chess, trading, politics, religion, and travel around Europe in the thirteenth century and earlier. What it is not is a history of “the woman who made” the chessmen.