The Golden Horn by Poul Anderson

The Golden Horn Poul Anderson (1926-2001) was an American author of fantasy and science fiction, but he also wrote a trilogy of historical novels, known as The Last Viking, which tells the story of Harald Hardrada, who was King of Norway from 1046 to 1066. I have read about Harald before, but only as a minor character or in relation to the Norman Conquest of 1066 and the role he played in trying to claim the throne of England, so I was looking forward to reading The Golden Horn and learning more about his life.

Harald Sigurdharson (the name Hardrada or Hardrede, meaning “hard ruler”, will follow later) is the younger half-brother of Olaf II of Norway. Harald is only fifteen years old when he fights alongside Olaf at the Battle of Stiklastadh (Stiklestad) in an attempt to restore his brother to the Norwegian throne, which has been lost to King Canute of Denmark. Olaf is killed during the battle, his forces are defeated and Harald manages to escape. The Golden Horn, the first book in the trilogy, follows Harald throughout his time in exile as he waits for his chance to come home to Norway and reclaim the throne.

After recovering from being badly wounded at Stiklastadh, Harald flees to Russia with the help of Rognvald Brusason of Orkney. In Kiev, he meets the Grand Prince Yaroslav who makes him a captain in his army. Later, Harald continues south to Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire, where he becomes commander of the Varangian Guard. The next few years are spent on various military campaigns in and around Constantinople and the Mediterranean. During this time Harald amasses great wealth, makes a name for himself as a warrior, and enters into marriage with Princess Ellisif (Elisaveta) of Kiev.

The Golden Horn was not quite what I was expecting: not being very familiar with Harald’s story, I hadn’t realised so much of the novel would be set in Constantinople rather than Scandinavia (although the title should have been a clue; the golden horn was the name of the horn-shaped harbour of Constantinople). I didn’t mind, though, as I loved this setting and enjoyed following the intrigue surrounding the Byzantine Empress Zoe Porphyrogenita, her husband Michael IV, and her sister Theodora. Harald is back in Norway by the end of the novel, so I imagine the next two books in the trilogy will be the ‘Viking’ stories I had expected.

What I liked less were the battle scenes and the focus on Harald’s military career with the Varangian Guard, which seemed to come at the expense of character development and the emotional connections which are so important to me in fiction. I never felt that I got to dig beneath the surface and really get to know Harald – or any of the other characters in the book – and that was disappointing. Still, it was good to have the chance to learn a little bit about Harald’s life, even if I sometimes felt overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of historical facts, which I felt could have been woven more smoothly into the fabric of the story.

The Golden Horn is followed by The Road of the Sea Horse and The Sign of the Raven. All three novels were originally published in 1980. I don’t think I’ll be reading the other two as this book just wasn’t really for me, but I would have no hesitation in recommending the trilogy to readers who are interested in this period and who look for different things in historical fiction than I do.

Thanks to Open Road Integrated Media for providing a review copy via NetGalley.

Master of Shadows by Neil Oliver

Master of Shadows There were several things that drew me to Master of Shadows: the setting (the fall of Constantinople in 1453) was one, and the protagonist (the Scottish engineer, John Grant) was another. Most of all, I was curious to see what Neil Oliver’s fiction would be like. Oliver is best known as a television presenter and historian – he recently presented the BBC series Celts: Blood, Iron and Sacrifice – and although he has previously published some non-fiction, Master of Shadows is his first novel.

I have mentioned Constantinople, but much of the first half of the novel is actually set in Scotland, where the soldier Badr Khassan has come to fulfil a deathbed promise, having sworn to protect the wife and child of his friend, the late Patrick Grant. He finds Jessie Grant and young John just in time to interrupt an attempt on their lives by the men of Patrick’s enemy, Sir Robert Jardine of Hawkshaw. Pursued by the vengeful archer, Angus Armstrong, Badr and John leave Scotland and travel across Europe, making a living by fighting as mercenaries. Along the way they meet a mysterious female warrior called Lena who is also a target of the same group of Scots and who is hiding some important secrets regarding her own identity and John’s.

Eventually John arrives in Constantinople, one of the final strongholds of the Byzantine Empire, now under threat from the mighty Ottoman army. As the Emperor Constantine XI prepares to defend his city and Sultan Mehmet II gathers his forces outside the walls, two more characters come to the forefront of our story: Prince Constantine, the Emperor’s crippled son, and Yaminah, the girl he loves. The lives of John, Yaminah and the Prince come together during the dramatic Siege of Constantinople and the final days of the Byzantine Empire.

Master of Shadows is a combination of history, adventure and romance set against a backdrop of what is surely one of the most fascinating and significant periods in Europe’s history – the collapse of one empire and the expansion of another. I thought the book was generally well written and, knowing that the author is an archaeologist and historian, I also felt confident that it would have been well researched. However, he does take some liberties with certain historical characters; I really disliked Lena’s story, although I can’t explain why without telling you who she really is and that would be a spoiler! There’s also a supernatural aspect to the novel – John Grant is able to feel the Earth moving through space and can sense the people around him without using sight or touch – but this didn’t become such a big part of the story as I’d feared at first.

I had previously encountered John Grant as a character in Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Niccolò series (under the slightly different name of John le Grant) and was quite fond of him, so I was looking forward to seeing how he would be portrayed by another author. Very little is known about the real John Grant; records show that a Johannes Grant was employed as an engineer by the Byzantine Empire and his expertise in counter-tunnelling prevented the Turks from invading Constantinople from under the walls. He was originally thought to have been German but more recent research suggested that he was actually Scottish. This lack of historical information has allowed Neil Oliver to create a whole backstory for John to explain how he came to be in Constantinople. The character is quite different from the one in Dunnett’s novels, but I did still like him (although I found it irritating that he is always given his full name of John Grant, sometimes multiple times in the same paragraph, and is never just referred to as John).

Master of Shadows is an interesting first novel – I particularly liked the Scottish chapters near the beginning and the romance between Prince Constantine and Yaminah – but there were too many little things that didn’t work for me. As well as the Lena storyline and the supernatural element I’ve mentioned above, there’s a lot of jumping around in time which makes it slightly difficult to follow what is happening. I’m not sure whether I’ll read any more of Neil Oliver’s fiction, but I might try one of his non-fiction books instead.

Review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Theodora by Stella Duffy

Theodora by Stella Duffy is a historical fiction novel based on the life of Empress Theodora of the Byzantine Empire. The book follows Theodora’s rise from her early days as an actress to her position as one of the most powerful women in the Empire.

Theodora’s story begins in 6th century Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. When her father, a bear-keeper at the Hippodrome, is killed by one of his own bears, Theodora and her two sisters are sent to the teacher Menander who prepares them for a career in the theatre. Menander gives the girls and their friends instruction in dancing, singing, acting and acrobatics, but Theodora finds that her true talent is in making her audience laugh. A successful stage career follows but the darker side of this is that the girls are also forced into a life of prostitution from an early age.

When Theodora attracts the attention of Hecebolus, the newly appointed Governor of the Pentapolis (five cities in North Africa), he asks her to accompany him. She agrees to go to Africa with him but she knows that as a former actress she will not be allowed to marry and that Hecebolus will eventually lose interest in her. It’s not until she spends some time with a religious community in the desert that Theodora finally reaches a turning point and starts to think about what she really wants from her life.

Theodora is the first book I’ve read by this author and I thought it was a fascinating and inspirational story. This is not a period of history that I’ve ever been particularly interested in reading about and so I didn’t know anything about Theodora until now (I don’t mind admitting I had never even heard of her). This means I can’t comment on the historical accuracy of the book, but judging by the author’s note and bibliography at the back of the book Stella Duffy has obviously carried out a huge amount of research into both Theodora’s life and into the time period in general. I thought there were places where the amount of historical detail, particularly regarding religion and politics, slowed the story down too much, but most of it is very interesting and helps to paint a full and vivid picture of Theodora’s world.

As well as having an eventful and unusual life, Theodora also has a complex personality, which makes her a great subject for historical fiction. I didn’t find her very easy to like as a person, but I loved her as a character! She’s tough, outspoken and daring, but despite her hard exterior she does have a heart. She’s not perfect; she makes mistakes and says things that she shouldn’t, but this only makes her more human. One thing I really liked is that although Theodora does grow and develop as a person over the course of the novel, the changes that she goes through are completely believable and she doesn’t change so much that it’s unrealistic.

I was pleased to discover that there are plans for a sequel as I would love to meet Theodora again and find out what happens to her after her marriage to the Emperor Justinian.

I received a copy of this book from Virago for review.