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.

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.

The Last Light of the Sun by Guy Gavriel Kay

The Last Light of the Sun I’m hoping to read Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven soon for the Once Upon A Time challenge, but first I need to tell you about another of his novels which I read a few weeks ago: The Last Light of the Sun.

This is the third book I’ve read by Kay and like the other two (Tigana and The Lions of Al-Rassan) it is set in a fantasy world that closely resembles a real historical one. A blue moon and a white moon shine in the sky, faeries wait to claim the souls of the dead, and ancient magical forces lurk in the forest, yet the world portrayed in The Last Light of the Sun can easily be identified as Northern Europe in the time of the Vikings, the Anglo-Saxons and the Celts.

In this re-imagined land, the Vikings have been renamed the Erlings, the Anglo-Saxons have become the Anglycn and the Celts have been transformed into the Cyngael. While the Erlings are sea-raiders who inhabit the islands in the far north, the Anglycn live in what is surely the country we now know as England, and the Cyngael live to the west, presumably in Wales. These lands of the Cyngael, on the western edge of the known world, are the last to see the light of the setting sun – and also form the final outpost of the new religion of Jad, the sun god.

Throughout the novel, we follow the adventures of three groups of characters from each of the three cultures I’ve described above. First, we meet Bern Thorkellson, a young Erling who has lost his lands and his freedom as a result of his father being exiled for murder. Desperate to escape and build a new life for himself, Bern joins a raiding party heading for the Anglycn shores. Meanwhile, in the Cyngael lands, two young princes called Alun and Dai happen to be spending the night at the home of a rival Cyngael warrior, Brynn ap Hywll, when it is attacked by another group of Erling raiders. Finally we get to know the family of the Anglcyn king, Aeldred, who has been trying to unite his people against the threat of the Erlings.

To describe the plot in any more detail would be difficult as it does become quite complex as the lives of each of these characters become entwined with all of the others. The author doesn’t really ‘take sides’ or favour one of the three cultures over the other two – perspectives and points of view are balanced fairly between the three and there are good people and bad within each group. Feuds and rivalries are formed, but so are friendships and loyalties as Erling, Anglcyn and Cyngael find that they need to adapt to a changing world.

One thing Kay does in this book, which I’m not sure I really like, is to occasionally leave his main characters behind for a while to explore the life of a completely new character who enters the novel for a few pages and then disappears, never to be mentioned again – as Kay himself describes it: “At the margins of any tale there are lives that come into it only for a moment. Or, put another way, there are those who run quickly through a story and then out, along their paths.” I can understand the reasons for this – to show us what is going on away from the central plot and the central characters – but I did find it slightly distracting.

This is a beautifully written novel, though, and as well as being an entertaining story, it’s also very thought-provoking in places. I particularly liked these two quotes:

“It happens this way. Small things, accidents of timing and congruence: and then all that flows in our lives from such moments owes its unfolding course, for good or ill, to them. We walk (or stumble) along paths laid down by people and events of which we remain forever ignorant. The road someone else never took, or travelled too late, or too soon, means an encounter, a piece of information, a memorable night, or death, or life.”

“A hard truth: that courage can be without meaning or impact, need not be rewarded, or even known. The world has not been made in that way. Perhaps, however, within the self there might come a resonance, the awareness of having done something difficult, of having done…something.”

I’ve loved all three of the Guy Gavriel Kay novels I’ve read so far and am looking forward to reading his others, beginning with Under Heaven. Have you read any of his books, and if so do you have a favourite?