The Soul Thief by Cecelia Holland

Cecelia Holland is an American historical novelist who has been writing since the 1960s and whose books cover a huge range of different time periods and geographical settings. To give an example of the variety of her work, I have previously read three of her novels and one was set in Borgia-ruled Rome, one in medieval England and one in 16th century Hungary! The Soul Thief, the first in a six-volume series published between 2002 and 2010, takes us back to Ireland in the 10th century, beginning on the eve of a Viking raid…

Corban Loosestrife has argued with his father and, having been threatened with banishment, has gone off to sleep outdoors in the hope that he will be forgiven the next day. However, when the sun rises in the morning and he heads back home, he finds the family farm burning to the ground, his parents’ dead bodies amongst the ruins and no sign at all of his twin sister, Mav. Making his way to the Viking settlement at Dubh Linn (Dublin), Corban learns that Mav may have been transported across the sea to Jorvik with the other healthy young women to be sold as slaves. Determined to do whatever is necessary to bring her home, Corban sets out on his sister’s trail – a trail that will take him first to Jorvik and then further afield to the Danish trading post of Hedeby.

I know from my earlier experience of Cecelia Holland’s novels that her ‘heroes’ are usually not particularly heroic – and in fact are often very unlikeable. Corban is easier to like than, for example, János Rákossy or Fulk, Earl of Stafford, but he is also another imperfect character. He makes mistakes, he lacks courage at times, and he is often easily distracted from his quest. There’s a lot of scope for character development, yet I felt that there was very little in this book; maybe as this is only the first of six novels we will see Corban grow and change as a person later in the series, although at this point I’m not sure whether I will be continuing. I enjoyed parts of Corban’s story, but this novel had neither the depth nor the level of emotional engagement I prefer and I don’t think I really liked it enough to want to commit to another five books.

I did find Mav’s story intriguing: after being captured during the Viking raid, she falls into the hands of the mysterious Lady of Hedeby, a sort of witch or sorceress who decides to use Mav’s psychic connection with her twin Corban for her own purposes. With this storyline, the novel begins to cross from straight historical fiction into the realms of historical fantasy – although the supernatural elements are really quite subtle and not fully explained (again, maybe this is developed further later in the series). Mav and the Lady interested me much more than Corban did and I would have preferred to have had more of the novel devoted to them.

My knowledge of this period of history is very limited, so I can’t really comment on the historical accuracy of anything that is described in the book. The focus is mainly on the fictional characters, but Corban does cross paths with some of the historical figures of the time, particularly in Jorvik (York), where he is drawn into the court of the Viking king, Eric Bloodaxe, and his wife, Gunnhild. Meanwhile, the Lady of Hedeby plots and schemes with another king, Harald Bluetooth (yes, the one Bluetooth technology is named after). I didn’t feel that I learned a lot about these historical men and women, although they have important roles in the plot, but as this is very much Corban’s story – the series is called The Life and Times of Corban Loosestrife – it’s understandable that he is given most of the attention.

As I’ve said, I’m probably not going to read the second Corban book, but I will continue to read Cecelia Holland’s standalone novels. So far I have read Rákossy, Hammer for Princes and City of God, and am looking forward to reading more.

Book 9/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Rákossy by Cecelia Holland

Cecelia Holland’s many historical novels cover a wide range of time periods and settings. So far I have only read two of them: City of God, a story of Rome and the Borgias, and Hammer for Princes, set in 12th century England in the period known as the Anarchy. My third Holland novel, Rákossy, takes place in Hungary during the Ottoman Wars of the 1520s. Not having read many books set in Hungary, I was looking forward to something different and to learning something new.

The title character is János Rákossy, a Magyar border lord trying to protect his lands from the threat of Turkish invasion. He is disappointed with the lack of help from the rest of Europe whom he feels are leaving Hungary to fend for itself and he knows he can’t rely on the support of his neighbouring barons either. All he can do is continue to negotiate treaties, train his knights, carry out raids, try to build alliances, and do whatever else is necessary to defend his castle and his people.

Rákossy is not the sort of man who is easy to like. He is ruthless, cold, cynical and violent towards both men and women. As another character says of him:

“The people in the village think that he sold his soul to the Devil for a charmed life and fortune in battle. The Turks, I’m told, believe so too. I think it’s possibly the only point of agreement between them.”

He does have some good qualities – he’s clever and shrewd and his courage is not in question – but he is certainly not someone I could consider to be a hero. This seems to be normal for a Cecelia Holland protagonist, though; I had similar feelings about Nicholas in City of God and Fulk in Hammer for Princes. She seems to excel at deliberately creating characters who are unappealing, morally ambiguous and whose motives are not always clear. But at least if her central characters are not very likeable, they are still interesting and complex.

Of the other characters in the novel, two stand out. One is Denis, Rákossy’s brother, a sensitive man who prefers books to warfare and doesn’t always approve of or agree with Rákossy’s actions. The other is Catharine de Buñez, believed to be an illegitimate daughter of the King of Aragon, who marries Rákossy early in the novel. As far as I can tell, most of the major characters in the book are fictional, although the story is based on fact, giving us an idea of the situation on the Hungary-Turkey border leading up to the Battle of Mohács in 1526. If you know what the outcome of that battle is going to be, it does affect how you might view Rákossy’s negotiations and military preparations throughout the novel, but either way you can admire what he is trying to do for his country.

I didn’t find this book particularly enjoyable, mainly because I thought it was very bleak and also because it didn’t seem to have any sort of plot beyond a string of raids and battles. It was one of Cecelia Holland’s earliest novels, though – published in 1967 – and based on the others I’ve read I think they do get better. I don’t think she’ll ever become a favourite author as her writing lacks the warmth and emotion I prefer, but I’m still looking forward to reading more of her books because her subjects and settings all sound so intriguing. I have a NetGalley copy of The Soul Thief, which is about to be reissued by Canelo, so I will be reading that one next.

Hammer for Princes by Cecelia Holland

Hammer for Princes Cecelia Holland is an American author of historical fiction; her novels cover a wide range of time periods and settings as diverse as 12th century Iceland, the Mongol invasion of Eastern Europe, medieval France, and the search for Tutankhamun’s tomb. Earlier this year I read City of God, a story of Borgia-ruled Rome, and enjoyed it enough to want to try more of her work.

Hammer for Princes (which I have discovered was originally published in 1971 as The Earl) is set in England during the period known as The Anarchy. Since the death of King Henry I in 1135, the country has been divided between supporters of his nephew, King Stephen, and his daughter, the Empress Matilda. At the point when Hammer for Princes begins, Matilda’s son, Prince Henry, has taken up the battle for the throne and the country is still in a state of civil war. Fulk, Earl of Stafford, has pledged his loyalty to Henry and it is through Fulk’s eyes that the events of the novel unfold.

Fulk is an intelligent, shrewd man with a lot of experience when it comes to warfare and politics. But even as he leads his men in battle, storms castles and fights in tournaments, Fulk’s biggest problems come in the form of his own family. His scheming uncle Thierry has his eye on some of Fulk’s lands, which he believes are rightfully his, and to Fulk’s disappointment it seems that his own son, Rannulf, is ready to take Thierry’s side in the family feud.

This novel is written in the same detached, unadorned style I remember from City of God, which gives Cecelia Holland’s books a distinctive style all of their own. The characters are difficult to like and difficult to understand or connect with on an emotional level, but this just makes them all the more fascinating and complex. I’m not sure that I fully understood the purpose of everything Fulk said and did (I felt very much the same about the actions of Nicholas in City of God) but I do like books in which not everything is clearly explained for the reader and I don’t mind sometimes being left to interpret things for myself.

Hammer for Princes doesn’t have a lot of plot, being more of a series of episodes in Fulk’s life which, when added together, build up a vivid picture of the world of a medieval nobleman. The setting is a little unusual because Fulk is on the move all the time: on horseback, in camp, getting ready to ride into battle or journeying between castles. Holland does not write long, flowery descriptions but she does choose just the right words to set the scene and create atmosphere.

As I read Hammer for Princes I kept thinking of Wolf Hall; they are very different stories, of course, but the portrayal of Fulk reminded me very much of Hilary Mantel’s portrayal of Thomas Cromwell. Both novels are written in the third person, but delve deeply into the minds of their protagonists, both of whom are clever, subtle men with the sort of personal qualities that enable them to find their way through the shifting loyalties and political intrigues of their time.

I enjoyed following Fulk’s story and am looking forward to my next Cecelia Holland novel, whichever that may be.

Thanks to Endeavour Press for providing a review copy via NetGalley.

City of God by Cecelia Holland

City of God Since 1966 Cecelia Holland has written over thirty novels, most of them historical fiction, and some are now being re-released in ebook format by Open Road Integrated Media. As I’ve never read any of her work before, I was pleased to receive a copy of her 1979 novel, City of God, via NetGalley.

City of God is set in Rome at the beginning of the sixteenth century and, as the subtitle suggests, it is A Novel of the Borgias. With the former Rodrigo Borgia now Pope Alexander VI, the Borgia family already wield a large amount of influence in Rome, but the Pope’s illegitimate son, the condottiero Cesare Borgia, is now turning his attention to conquering the rest of the Italian city states. Cesare, known as Duke Valentino, has a reputation for being cruel and ruthless and even as he plots and schemes his way to power, his enemies are conspiring against him.

We see all of this through the eyes of Nicholas Dawson, secretary to the Florentine ambassador to Rome. Raised at a Spanish monastery after his English parents died in Pamplona, Nicholas is a man who seems to have no real connection or loyalty to any particular country or city. This makes him an ideal target for Valentino, who has his eye on Florence and needs a spy within the Florentine embassy. Nicholas has already been secretly rewriting the ambassador’s dispatches to suit his own political views – will betraying Florence to the Borgias be the next step?

As this is the first Cecelia Holland novel I’ve read I didn’t know what to expect – and I was quite surprised. This is a book with a very dark and claustrophobic atmosphere and the writing is completely unromantic, focusing firmly on the political machinations of Nicholas and the Borgias and the intrigue of the Papal Court.

I didn’t find this an easy book to read, but that’s because I’m not very familiar with the Borgias or the history of Rome in this period and Holland does seem to assume that the reader has some previous knowledge. She doesn’t spend much time explaining the negotiations, alliances and conflicts between Spain, France and the various Italian city states, but expects us to already understand the politics involved. I do like historical fiction that makes me think and that encourages me to look things up for myself so I can learn about the period, but I did wish I had known more about the subject before I started!

The characters in City of God are very unlikeable. The book doesn’t challenge the popular view of the Borgias as scheming and corrupt – Alexander is a Pope who gambles and who has mistresses and children, while Cesare is brutal and unscrupulous and Lucrezia, his sister, is the subject of gossip and suspicion – and the people around them are not much better. I found nobody to sympathise with or to admire, not even Nicholas. This wasn’t a big problem, though, as I can often still enjoy a book without liking the characters – and at least they were interesting.

Nicholas himself is a fascinating, complex character but it’s never obvious where his loyalties lie or if he even has any at all. He appears to be motivated by self-interest, ambition and the desire for power, and he enjoys using his brains to give advice to the Borgias and to act independently of the Ambassador. I’m not sure I ever fully understood what Nicholas was trying to do, but something that happens right at the end of the book made me think again about what he was hoping to achieve. Nicholas is also a gay man living in a time when it is dangerous to be openly homosexual and this adds another layer to the novel. His relationship with a young man called Stefano is an important aspect of the plot (though don’t expect a great love story, as even this part of the novel is free of romance and sentiment).

City of God was an interesting and unusual read; I didn’t love it but I do want to try another of Cecelia Holland’s books as I think I might prefer one with a different setting. Now that more of her books are being made available again I’ll have plenty to choose from!

I’m counting this book towards Week 3 of the Forgotten Histories Reading Challenge – Read a book with an LGBT protagonist.