Book Review: Viking Fire

Every Christmas my wife and I give each other books as presents. Mostly they’re one’s we’ve chosen for ourselves, but there’s always a surprise too. This year my wife gave me a novel: Viking Blood, by Justin Hill.

Viking Blood  is the story of the great Norse warrior and king, Harold Hardrada. Harold lived in the eleventh century and was known as the greatest warrior of his age. His story is a fascinating and epic one. Forced to flee Norway after the death of his brother, King Olaf, at the battle of Stiklestad, Harold is exiled for almost twenty years. His adventures take him through Sweden and Russia, and finally to the great city of Constantinople.  Here he ends up in the famed Varangian Guard, at the service of the Byzantine Empire.

Eventually Harold gathers about him a band of warriors and enough treasure to return to Norway and make a successful bid for the kingship. After many years as King of Norway, Harold takes one last gamble and, invades England. Although initially successful, Harold is finally killed at the Battle of Stamford Bridge near York, in 1066. The story is fascinating in itself, but also adds an extra dimension to the story of events surrounding the Norman Conquest of England.

I was hooked by this novel from the outset and read all 380 pages in just over a day. So what makes it such a good book? For a start, it’s historically accurate. I find it a real turn off when an historical author gets the facts wrong or distorts them for effect, but Justin Hill isn’t guilty of this. It’s easy in a way, because Harold’s story is such an amazing one, that Hill doesn’t need to change the facts. But he also gets the detail right, which is what gives this book its feeling of realism.

Not only is the story accurate, but it’s also an epic one. Rather than focus on a narrow timeframe and location, Viking Fire takes in a great sweep of history. It  spans fifty years in many different locations. We tend to think that globalisation is a recent development, but this novel shows that early medieval society, although more limited than ours, still had an international dimension.

History tends to portray Harold as violent and barbaric: the stereotypical Viking. But by telling the story in Harold’s own words, Hill makes him a much more sympathetic character. He’s loyal to friends and family, pious, just, and compassionate. It’s true that Harold is still capable of violence, but it reflects the world he lives in. He’s neither unduly vindictive or gratuitous. Justin Hill does a very good job of portraying him as a decent man in a violent world.

Another aspect of the book that appeals to me is how Justin Hill portrays Harold as he ages. Harold starts off as an impulsive youth, and we see him as he matures into a fearsome warrior, a great leader of men and a wise king.  Towards the end of the story, a note of wistfulness is introduced as Harold contemplates his life, and the people he has lost. In the end Harold accepts his fate, and the portrayal of old age, (he’s only 53 when he dies, but that was old for the time), is very realistic.

The climax to the story takes place close to where I live now. At the end of the story Harold fights his two last battles, at Fulford, near York, and at Stamford Bridge, a few miles away. I know both places well and have walked over the battlefields, and this adds to my interest of the story.

If you want a realistic, well written, epic story. I’d strongly recommend  Viking Fire to you. It’s a fascinating book about a frequently overlooked character, and the fantastic, but true world he lived in.

Viking Fire is published by Little, Brown. I haven’t read any of Justin Hill’s other books yet, but he’s written another book set in eleventh century England, Shieldwall, and several about medieval china. He’s definitely an author I’ll read in the future.

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