Almost exactly a year ago, I returned from the Historical Novel Society Conference in Oxford, with a pile of books. I should imagine most people who attended were the same. A few weeks ago, I felt in need of a bit of Anglo-Saxon violence and started reading one of them, Shieldwall by Justin Hill. I had bought it because the author was on the panel of the session on “Battle Scenes: Guts, Gore and Glory.” There were only two Anglo-Saxon writers on the panel, and I knew the other. So armed with my copy of Shieldwall, I barged up at the end and got it signed.
I wish I’d read it earlier. I soon knew that this was something special. So when I noticed an offer of a copy of the next book in the series, Viking Fire, in exchange for an honest review. I jumped at it.
This is that review. Viking Fire is the second in the Conquest Series about the events leading up to the battles of 1066. In this book the focus is on Harald Hardrada, who won the first battle, at Fulford. He was then defeated, by Harold Godwinson, at Stanford Bridge. I must admit that I knew little more than that he was King of Norway. Why was he involved in this conflict?
Harald Sigurdson (Hardrada was a later nickname) had a long life – and what a life. The story starts, after a brief chapter at Fulford, when Harald is a boy. He idolizes his brother, King Olaf and when he is fifteen is allowed to stand beside him in battle. Unfortunately Olaf is killed and Harald is badly injured. He vows revenge on those responsible for his brother’s death – King Cnut, who takes the throne and his family. Harald must flee, grow strong enough to challenge for the throne.
Still recovering from his injuries, he has to navigate the mountains, in winter. Some offer help, others are enemies. When he reaches the coast, he must make a decision – catch a ship, but where? He heads east, into the frozen lands of the Rus. After years of fighting and trading in furs, he arrives in the Black Sea, captain of his own ship, to deliver a cargo of furs to the Emperor of the Greeks at Micklegard (Byzantium). He joins the Varangian Guard and rises to become one of their leaders, fighting battles at sea and in Greece and Sicily. He visits Jerusalem and becomes friendly with the Empress.
Having accumulated great riches he decides to return to the North to claim the throne of Norway. Not for the power, but for the good he can do, for Harald is an intelligent man. He sees the benefits that civilisation can bring to his homeland. He returns and briefly shares the throne with his nephew, Magnus, Olaf’s son. Magnus dies before they have time to come to blows, and Harald rules Norway for twenty years, building churches, founding Oslo, having children. By 1066 he is just over 50, growing old, why should he want to invade England? This book suggests one answer.
How is this long and exciting life packed into one average length book? Mainly because the author uses Harald himself to tell the story. Looking back on his life, he remembers the highlights, covering the journeys with a throwaway “I was with Jarl Eilief two years” or “Time and days seemed to merge into one long dream. I would wake to see thunderheads over Olympus or lookout towers over the burnt ruins of a pirate camp, and a few times dolphins raced the boat…” and their breath reminds him of an incident in Norway.
But when time stops, for a battle, the perils of the snow, an ordinary day on a Norwegian farm or the first walk through the streets of Byzantium, the writing is so clear that you are there, living Harald’s life with him, seeing each tiny detail; the heat, the taste of the wine, the excitement of the shieldwall and the pain of losing friends.
The book is full of “what ifs”: Harald could have stayed in Norway, become a farmer. He might have become Emperor of Byzantium. Or he might have beaten Harold Godwinson, and then William of Normandy, and changed history.
I loved the book, and look forward to reading more of the series.
I recently read King Hereafter by Dorothy Dunnett. I said that it was the best book I had ever read. Viking Fire by Justin Hill runs a close second.