Book Review: Viking Fire by Justin Hill.

Paperback: 400 pages
Publisher: Abacus (7 Sept. 2017)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 034912339X

In terms of visuals the Paperback is as one would expect, a good product with an interesting design, but publishers will continue to put faux gilt onto the front cover, on hardbacks that is OK you can avoid rubbing it off with use by removing the dust jacket but with paperbacks this isn’t an option and the result is a much less fancy cover when you get through with it.

Inside, I must say I’m very impressed with Justin Hill’s new novel Viking Fire. Don’t be fooled by the typically HistFic title, this is a strong, literary, retelling of the Harald Hardrada saga. Everyone thinks they know what a Viking is, and because of that, probably the most interesting figure of the 1066 epic is also the most misunderstood. This book presents the story of a man who might not be very familiar to readers who are used to unimaginative and bland descriptions of Hardrada as a opportunistic looter.

The beginning is brooding, grim and painted with the colour’s of the north. It’s a struggle, and Harold is driven, here, by the advice of his mother, and to a degree his brother, that being to never run away. Of course that is in part exactly what he does after his side lose in battle, which puts him on course to become a fugitive to the court of the King of Sweden, (who gives him things he was needin’), and then, beset by quiet enemies he heads east.

The next part of the book takes on a much more paradisiacal, Homeric tone. Here having learned to stand, figuratively at least, he now learnes to think more, here he becomes a leader.
I didn’t particularly find the battles and fighting realistic, mostly they are just violent, even though the gore is not terribly gratuitous. Some profanity is to be found to add grit to an otherwise fairly genteel character. Harold goes into most of his battles as a sort of thing from an epic poem, killing multiple enemies in very quick succession before forgetting how many more. Now and then there’s a histfic cliche like when the hero sees a notable enemy and declares him ” a man worth killing.” I can’t really say if those people I know who I might call Byzantines (you know who you are) will be terribly impressed with the treatment of Harald’s time with the Verangian Guard, which seems rather larger than life, I don’t know enough about the eastern empire to comment.

As far as history goes, this book follows the course of Harald’s life quite faithfully, while sneaking in moments that the author hopes will flesh out the character for us, and fill in gaps where history is silent on the matter. I liked that the author has a story to tell, rather than just going through the events with a dramatic narrative. This is a retelling of a man, rather than a story, and I was pleased to see that.

Indeed far from the pirate he is often assumed to be, Harald seems sometimes almost overly pious, if not naive in some cases, slightly opposed to what even the real man seems to have been. On the note of piety as well, it’s clear that Harald is a strong Christian, living in a world that is a blend of old Norse and Christian beliefs, it’s not entirely clear which form of Christianity he subscribes to. He’s not at all nonplussed by Orthodoxy in the east, and indeed the interesting clash of religious theology is not really gone into, Harald seems able to slip between Roman Catholicism brought to Norway by the English, and the Orthodox Christianity of the Eastern Roman Empire, finally ending up somewhat closer to the latter.

It is admittedly rushed in parts, it’s not a series it’s a single novel so that’s understandable, but I’m also unsure if we are reading the words written down by the archbishop who’s addendum to a fictional “life of Sigurdsson” are interspersed throughout, or wether this is Harald’s voice coming to us from beyond the grave. Harald is the only character that develops; Harald transforms from a follower, obsessed with loyalty (and guilt) to a leader, killing is his trade, but he’s also a pious man. He’s also, through some of the book haunted by the spectre of a devil, which changes as he changes. there’s not much room for secondary roles, though I would say his mistress Helen (who provides the lions share of the romantic interest) and a tough captain of his who carries an axe named Tooth fit the bill, and allow Harald to express different emotions. The other voice is that of the archbishop who is supposedly responsible for writing the history of his life and is offering addendums to his family.

I had some hopes for an interesting subplot, regarding a duel with the devil and I suppose you could say that I was dissapointed more was not made of this. When Harald was in Jerusalem buying relics he spoke of his Devil adversary, in the form of a dragon as his greatest adversary, the rest for which he was spending his life preparing. I took this to be a clever and subtle use of a foreshadowing. The banner of the earls of Wessex being a dragon, and after the author had created this sort of quasi supernatural element during the battle of Sticksland, when Harald’s brother is killed by a man that Harald sees the figure of the devil. The dragon and the devil aren’t mentioned in the chapter on the Battle of Stamford Bridge.

Harald develops as pious, honourable, merciful, learned and intelligent. He so far removed from our popular perception of Hardrada, a nickname appended after his death meaning “hard ruler” or “hard council” that it could be a different person, (though he might have been called Bulgar-Burner). But this is not Hardrada, indeed Hardrada was not even Hardrada, he was Sigurdsson. He was not the last Viking, he was not even what a pre-Cnut Viking would likely identify as a Viking, he was a Christian King. This then is the hero of this book, Harald Sigurdsson, not Harald Hardrada.

The end is poignant, as one would expect after reading the story of this saintly and heroically human Sigurdsson, rescued in these pages from his usual role as the guy Godwinson gets to defeat, the Viking pillager who sometimes it seems is only there in order to prove that the Saxon King Harold is a great King before being defeated otherwise ignominiously at Hastings. But Sigurdsson was more than that, he was a truly fascinating character that formed part of the mosaic of the times, and who could have made a great contribution to English history. This is a great retelling of the saga of the man history remembers as Harald Hardrada, but who lived as Harald Sigurdsson.

Josh.

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