Review – Viking Fire

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.

Justin Hill, Matthew Harffy, Harry Sidebottom, Douglas Jackson and Simon Scarrow talk Battles

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.

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Book Review – Death’s Bright Angel

One of the best things about the recent Historical Novel Society Conference was the Bookstall and the opportunity to buy a book and get it signed by the author.

I bought a few books, not too many – at least I could still lift my suitcase when I departed. Since the conference coincided with the 350th Anniversary of the Great Fire of London, I bought two books on that theme. I might buy a third; the reading by C. C. Humphreys at the Gala Dinner whetted my appetite.

I will write reviews of them all, but I start with Death’s Bright Angel by J. D. Davies. I didn’t actually buy this at the Conference. I had ordered it and intended to meet the author to get it signed. The book was released on 30th August but it didn’t arrive until after I had left home – thank you Amazon! I understand that copies arrived at the conference bookstall eventually.

Part of my haul from HNSOxford16

Part of my haul from HNSOxford16

Death’s Bright Angel is the sixth in the Quinton Journals series by J D Davies and Matthew Quinton has learned a few things. In the first of this series this Gentleman Captain knew nothing about sailing a ship – now he does. The book opens with a battle, a duel rather, between two ships. England is at war with both Holland and France and Matthew is searching the North Sea for their fleets. The ship he finds is French and they fight it out, cannons blazing and blood staining the decks, until one surrenders. Matthew wins, but his ship is damaged.

This theme continues. Success, but at a cost. He enthusiastically helps to burn the Dutch merchant fleet, an action to hit the economy of Holland and perhaps provoke rebellion. The destruction of a nearby, innocent village causes him to think again.

He is summoned back to England by the King and tasked with investigating a possible Dutch plot against the country. His pregnant wife is angry. She is Dutch and Matthew has bankrupted her father – his ships were among those burned. She has more to worry about when she discovers that her husband is working with the beautiful and enticing Aphra Behn, writer and secret agent. As the heat rises in early September 1666, Matthew Quinton, racked with guilt, must find the conspirators. What do they plan?

A fire starts in London, the East wind blows, the fire spreads. Should Matthew help to fight the fire or save his wife? Did the Dutch start the fire, or do they plan something worse?

This book is a thrilling race against time, combining action with a vast knowledge about the period. Historical characters make their appearances, King Charles II and his brother James, Samuel Pepys buries his cheese. The reader is there, in London during the Great Fire, walking, or rather running, through the streets, dodging the flames, pulling down houses and rescuing innocent people from xenophobic mobs.

There is more to this book, though, than a good read. Instead of the usual historical notes at the end, there is an essay, raising new theories about the causes of the Great Fire of London. The author is an expert on the period and has looked into original documents. When you consider that the burning of the Dutch ships occurred only two weeks before London’s fire, it would be difficult to conclude that there was no connection. Or perhaps it was just an out of control baker’s fire.

Two books for the price of one – what more could you want?

My next review will be The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor