Review: Viking Fire – Justin Hill

5 of 5 stars

My version: Hardback, Paperback
Historical Fiction Vikings, 1066
Little, Brown/Abacus
Hardback bought, paperback supplied by the author
Justin was kind enough to send me a paperback copy to review. I thought I’d pay him back for that kindness, by buying the hardback as well. As I had done for Shieldwall. Only fair?

1066. The greatest threat to England lies not in Normandy, but to the north, in Norway with Harald Hardrada, one of the most extraordinary adventurers of the medieval era.

But Hardrada’s own route to kingship is fraught with danger and political intrigue. He becomes the lover of empresses, and the murderer of an emperor; he holds the balance of power in the Byzantine Empire in his hands, and gives it all up for a Russian princess and the chance to return home to lead his people from barbarity and heathenism. But home is not all that he has imagined. He must fight the demons of his past, his family and his countrymen in a long and bitter war for revenge and power.

This is the astonishing true story of the most famous warrior in all Christendom: Harald Hardrada, the last Viking.

It seems to be a truth pretty much universally accepted, that the death of Harald Hardrada at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, brought an end both to his attempted invasion of England and the Viking Age. And his life.

He is also pretty much universally acclaimed as if not the greatest Viking, then certainly the last great Viking. He has, in my reading experience, despite the above accolades, missed out somewhat in terms of fame amongst the general reading public. His battles of Fulford (which he won) and then at Stamford Bridge (which he lost and lost his life), are -in my experience, remember – often sidelined almost as hiccups in the English history of 1066, on the way to Hastings and William The Conqueror. As if this Viking with the strange name, pops up out of nowhere all opportunistically like, gets beaten and is never heard of again. That Harald has a back story and an incredible one at that, does come as a bit of a surprise to me, as I only knew the absolute bare bones of it prior to reading Viking Fire.

What I really didn’t expect, even after having read Justin Hill’s previous foray into all things 1066, Shieldwall, was to be so completely bowled over by this magnificent retelling of (what subsequent poking about here and there has revealed) what is known of Harald’s story. No one leaving this book, can fail to be impressed both by Harald’s life, and Justin’s incredibly evocative re-telling of it.

It is so superbly well written, that most of the time, you don’t so much read it, as absorb it. It seeps in, gathers you up, carries you along, takes you back, puts you either at Harald’s side, or inside his thoughts. We are with Harald from his first memories as a child and a teenager in Norway, to his exile in the east, in Kievan Rus and later roaming round the Mediterranean in the service of Byzantium Empire, as leader of the famed Varangian Guard. Character changes as he moves through his life. From wide-eyed youth struggling to survive and find his way, but showing sparks of his later character, to amassing experience and wealth in the east, to ‘did I really do all that?’ in older age. The progression and development of his character by Justin, is, perhaps only really noticeable when you think back on the book, because it is so beautifully and naturally written.

Under way, I was reminded of the incredible The Sea Road. Justin, like Margaret Elphinstone, has captured a feeling of that longing for a time gone, of their youth, that is surely not just that of their character’s, but ours’ as well. Me, anyway. The past has gone but something might be found to take its place. As with Paul Watkins’ Thunder God, it could be a commentary on the creep of Christianity into Viking territory that has been brought to use by many writers in the field. But, as here, Justin has Harald as being, if not totally Christian, at least ‘well disposed’ towards Christianity. To be honest, I didn’t realise that Harald might have been so Christian, throughout his life. I’d thought maybe, as in G. K. Holloway’s 1066 What Fates Impose, that “The old Viking warrior never felt comfortable in churches unless he was robbing them.’

In Viking Fire, he is portrayed as being religiously pragmatic, he is a Viking through and through, but takes the best from both sides. As I feel a lot of Vikings were at least willing to do when they first met Christianity. They couldn’t see why anyone should unquestioningly worship what to them was a weak god, but they were prepared to allow that some might want to. It was Christianity that decided there should/could be no living side by side, and Viking leaders, looking to the future and the need for political alliances, took on Christianity as a way of gaining what they wanted. Then the old ways faded withered and died from neglect. Maybe not quite, as there is still a following here in Scandinavia, but it was never seen as a ‘threat‘ again.

Harald’s dream while travelling in something of a self-imposed exile, was always to return to Norway with enough money and men, and if not, with enough money to get enough men – and seek vengeance.  It seemed that when he did return, he was a giant amongst little Norwegians. Not just in stature (sagas have him as being six or even seven foot tall), but in presence and thinking. He becomes king, settles down, builds churches and while at that point, his life is already saga worthy, with his background, you know it’s not enough to contain him.

Vikings seem always to have been concerned about reputation they leave behind. Hardrada is no difference. He has all he wanted, a place at the high table in Valhalla is assured, but when tempted by Tostig Godwinsson and English emissaries trying to enlist Harald’s help to regain the English throne from Harold Godwinsson, he finds he just can’t resist one last Viking adventure. He knows he shouldn’t, but in keeping with the rest of his life, when did that mean he wouldn’t? So, for one last moment in the limelight, the old Viking can’t say no. And when his end comes, he dies, I felt, if not happy, then satisfied. That he had done his absolute best, done what he could with his life, and seen where it could take him. We should all be so content on our last day.

These later chapters – especially around the death of his wife –  affected me very much indeed. They were reminiscent of the feelings that very nearly overwhelmed me reading the end of Angus Donald’s The Death of Robin Hood. Justin brings a grizzled old Viking semi-Pagan out of the Saga pages and history, and into fully rounded, living breathing, loving, hoping, dreaming life. Still deserving of the Hardrada name, but maybe with some more nuanced chamfered edges. I guarantee you’ll look out of your window and the scene will be very slightly misted.

‘The Last Viking’ epithet applied to Harald says a lot. They didn’t know it at the time, so there may well have been people who went a-Viking after 1066, but to our modern eyes, the ideal and the age ended with him. The Norse were more politically expedient after that. Might be the last, but in many ways he is the finest, the peak, the culmination and embodiment – the most Viking of Vikings. He is looking down on us from the mead benches in Vallhalla, that’s certain, and he couldn’t have wished for a more sublime, subtle, powerful and fitting tribute than Justin Hill’s Viking Fire.

*By the way, I’m going with the ‘Hard Counsel’ explanation of his name. As Hård-Råd’ would be the Danish equivalent now.

You can buy Viking Fire in hardback from here
Or in paperback from The Book Depository, here

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One thought on “Review: Viking Fire – Justin Hill

  1. Justin gets a great review but scroll down to the bottom – it can’t do me any harm.

    Dr Lurve xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx



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