My version: Paperback
Genre: Historical Fiction, Viking Age
Publisher: Pan (Macmillan)
First published: 2005
Constantinople, 1035: Thorgils has become a member of the Varangian lifeguard and witnesses the glories of the richest city on earth but also the murderous ways of the imperial family. Under the leadership of warrior chief Harald Sigurdsson, he is set up as the unwitting bait in a deadly ambush to destroy Arab pirates harassing the Byzantine shipping lanes in the Mediterranean, and later joins a campaign to recover Sicily from the Saracens.
When Harald eventually ascends the throne of Norway, Thorgils is despatched on a secret mission to Duke William of Normandy with a plan to coordinate the twin invasions of England – Harald’s Norsemen across the North Sea and William’s Normans attacking across the Channel. On 19 September 1066, Harald’s fleet of three hundred ships sails up the Ouse, confident of success, but a prophetic dream warns Thorgils that Duke William has duped his allies and the Norsemen are heading for disaster at Stamford Bridge. Thorgils embarks upon a race against time to reach Harald and warn him before the battle begins. But will Odinn’s devout follower really be able to anticipate what fate has decreed and save the heritage of his Viking ancestors?
This is in essence, a different look at the Viking ‘swords and shields’ books that I like reading so much (Robert Low, Giles Kristian, etc). If you’re simply after swords and shields and bucket-loads of bloody raping and pillaging, this isn’t for you. This is much more. More a thorough tour round the 11th Century Viking world, wrapped in an really engaging and in the latter stages especially, thought-provoking story.
It is clear from this, the third and final book in the Viking series, that the whole story hinges on the ‘threat’ of the coming of Christianity (the ‘White Christ’) to the previously Pagan Scandinavian lands. A coming which pretty much was the reason for the end of the Viking era. We have followed someone called Thorgills, throughout the series, but it is really first here, in number three, that it becomes clear that he too can see the writing on the wall, that Christianity is probably unstoppable. At the same time, a lot of his motivation in making the decisions he makes, is in the hope of finding a way of halting that flow of Christianity and turning the good, honest, hard-working ordinary Viking people, back to ‘the old ways’. In Harald Hardrada, he thinks he had found ‘the symbol of my yearning that it might be possible to restore the glories of the past.’ Problem is, Harald does want to restore the glories of the past, just different glories to those of Thorgills’. Both want to be a new Knud/Knut (if you’re a Scandinavian reader), Canute (if you’re English). Harald wants to be the Scandinavian Knud, who ruled Norway, Denmark and large parts of England, while Thorgills is really in essence like what we English remember Canute for – trying to hold back the waves, in this case, of Christanity.
The honesty and quiet nobility of the Pagan ways as practiced by ordinary people, is many times contrasted with the corrupt, power-hungry, un-forgiving and elitist new Christianity. Especially in the contrast between Thorgills’ life in the Varangian guard in Constantinople and his later living on a poor farm, with his wife, on the Swedish border with Norway. Yet the underlying similarities in all religions, to the ordinary man or woman in the street or field are also stressed. The only thing that is different in a lot of cases, is the names – and in ‘Viking’, the people following those religions.
Whilst it had been a while since I had read number two, and had read several others in the same field in between, I had no difficulty re-picturing the main character, previous events and where we were now. He clearly has done his research exceptionally well (I have, down the years, built up a reasonable knowledge of Viking history, and I do now, after all, live in a Viking country!) and if you know anything about the Varangian Guard in Constantinople, Scandinavia in the 10th Century (you’d be surprised, you do!), King Harold, the Bayeux Tapestry, William ‘the Conqueror’ and the preparation for and the events of, 1066…you’ll find it all woven in here. There was only once where I thought I was going to have to suspend belief about Thorgills’ being in the right Viking place at the right time in Viking history – and you probably need to know your Shakespeare – where I raised an eyebrow slightly, but without looking into the facts and the dates, I’m not going to be too hard on him for it.
For anyone with even a passing interest in the ‘real’ Viking world and history, this will be a wonderfully rewarding read. A textbook with a story wrapped around it isn’t such a bad thing, when it’s done so well as this Viking saga. I thoroughly enjoyed ‘The Kings Man’ and found it the best of the ‘Viking’ volumes (I did wonder if a compendium (?) single volume edition might be a nice idea). The whole story is interesting, involving and well-written, the main characters are fully-realised and believable – I was genuinely upset with one development towards the end of the story – and the final passages are a poignant and thought-provoking look at the ending of the Viking world, seen by a believer in ‘the old ways’; a true ‘Viking’.