Review: A Burning Sea – Theodore Brun

The Wanderer Chronicles 3

My version: PDF
Genre: Historical Fiction, Vikings, Constantinople
Atlantic Books
First published: 2019
ISBN: 9781786496164
Pages: 496

From the cover:
Erlan Aurvandil has turned his back on the past and his native Northern lands, taking a perilous journey to the greatest city in the world, Constantinople. But as his voyage ends, Erlan is brutally betrayed, captured and enslaved by a powerful Byzantine general.
Meanwhile, Lilla Sviggarsdottir, Queen of Svealand, has lost her husband and with him, her father’s kingdom. Her life in danger, Lilla escapes to find Erlan, the one man who can save her, following his trail to the very gates of Constantinople.
But corruption infests the city, and a dark tide is rising against the Emperor from within his own court. As the shadows darken and whispers of war begin to strengthen, Erlan’s fate becomes intertwined with that of the city. Are they both doomed to fall, or can freedom be won in the blood of battle?

Without doubt the best Viking Saga since Odin was a boy.

Really, I’m thinking no other Viking-era set trilogy comes within a spear’s throw of The Wanderer Chronicles for sheer, prolonged, all-round, what the fuck-ness. Actually only one other trilogy I’ve read these past many years that comes close Greg Iles’ incredible Natchez Burning trilogy (though they too are part of a longer series) and that’s a whole other genre.

The Wanderer Chronicles so often transcends the traditional bounds of Historical Fiction, with its themes, that it can only be seen as masterful story-telling on an epic scale that needs to be read by anyone interested in…

I say trilogy because there are three books so far, I say ‘so far’ because A Burning Sea finishes with the clear likelihood of a fourth book. A fourth instalment would surely take The Wanderer Chronicles into the what the fuck-ness Hall of Fame.

“Sveinn and Ulfr had the stones raised in memory of Halfdan and in memory of Gunnarr, their brothers. They met their end in the east …

In essence, the story is moderately simple. Erlan finds his way down to Miklagard – The Great City, Miklagarðr – in search of his own particular, not to say peculiar, destiny (Keep your wits about you for the possible explaination of what he has been told about the curse he is under, I think I figured it out). The Vikings knew the place as Miklagard, the Romans as Byzantium, the later Romans of the Viking Age, as Constantinople, you, if you’ve been, as Istanbul. For the eastern Vikings, that is to say mostly the Swedish branch, it was the shimmering golden goal of many a young warrior’s dreams of untold riches. Though, witness the many rune-stones there are in Sweden and along the Viking route to Miklagard marking those who didn’t find their pot of gold there. His off/on/off/on love interest, Lilla, is now Queen of the Twin Kingdoms, after Sviggar Ívarsson, was murdered. She too makes her way to Miklagard, to seek help – financial and physical – in reclaiming her lands, from Constantinople’s Emperor, Leo III. Of course, as with any true Viking blooded saga, it isn’t all smooth sailing on the way to the great city, nor when they get there. But I’ll leave you to get your teeth stuck into that little lot.

Theodore Brun isn’t the first of course, to document a character’s journey down to Byzantium, though he is one of the best to describe the hardships and the perils, the newness and the strangeness for his Viking characters. You can positively feel the tension and the exhaustion, the bite of the wind from the Steppes, the salt air in your face, and flinch at the sparks flying from swords clashing, the resounding thunk of arrows piercing armour. You don’t so much read, as have to get involved. You aren’t a passive reader. You’re at the oar bench, you’re first overboard and onto the attacking ship, you’re hiding in the shadows listening for the faintest sound, you’re first in the shield-wall pushing and heaving, sweating and screaming with all the others. You’re first to suspect the treachery, the last to notice. You’re with them physically and emotionally all the way.

Part of the remaining walls of Miklagard,
The Great City, or more literally,
the great market-place, of the Vikings

Of course, it is once Erlan and Lilla have arrived in Constantinople, that their troubles begin. Not least because they have unwittingly found them selves arrived at the city at a bad time. And looking at the history of Constantinople, it would be hard for them to have arrived on a peaceful sunny Sunday afternoon. They have arrived at the same time as the Muslim hoards and the second Arab siege of Constantinople (717 – 718). The Umayyad Caliphate has arrived by land and sea and will stop at nothing but the complete destruction of the great city. What hope do a half lame far travelled Viking warrior and a Queen without a Kingdom have against the irresistible might of hundreds of thousands of hardened Arabic warriors? And that’s if they can avoid being killed by a stab in the back in the dark from those inside the city, supposedly on their side.

You’ve probably, with the mention of Constantinople and the Viking era, already figured out to what the title of the book refers. If not, lets just say it’s not pleasant if you’re on the receiving end. Exciting for us, but an “Oh, shit!” moment if they’re pointing that thing in your direction.

The book, as the series, is packed with incident, tighter than a shield-wall facing overwhelming odds. I came to think, it isn’t so much a book, or a (continuing) trilogy, more an all-enveloping experience. A Burning Sea keeps up the frenetic pace of the previous books in the series and once you go there, you won’t want to come back. No serious Viking library can be complete without it. My great friend Giles Kristian could write until his smiles stop nestling in his beards and still never imagine anything as all-encompassingly huge, magnificent and all-round VIKING as this.

The Wanderer Chronicles has become in my opinion the essential Viking saga, really, the only one you need to read. You’d be missing out on a lot of other good books, but you get my point. A Burning Sea continues the epic tale, takes it in new directions – literally – and, hopefully, sets us up for another 800-odd pages of magnificence next year. 2020 suddenly got a whole lot more bearable, eh?

As it concerns the Viking Age, The Wanderer Chronicles has more than earned the right to be called a ‘Saga,’ like those told around the hall fire in long Scandinavian winter nights. So thoroughly steeped in the old ways, the old lore and yet so universal in its themes of regret, love, revenge and heartache. A modern epic of the old ways and days.

Let’s face it, if you read a better Viking book A Burning Sea this this year, I’ll eat my shield.

You can buy A Burning Sea from Amazon

Book photo by Ergita Sela on Unsplash

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