More years ago than I care to number, I read an 8th-century Old English poem called The Ruin. In it, a traveller describes his emotional response to the Roman ruins of Bath, lamenting the destruction of its walls and the loss of the life they once contained. The poem has stayed with me ever since and I continue to be fascinated by thoughts of how Saxons in the middle and latter part of the first millennium AD related to (or used) the Roman ruins they would have seen around them. Similarly, on reading Beowulf, learning each of its lines, I was intrigued by the idea of early struggles between a newly established, and possibly fragile, Christianity and the powerful might of another set of gods threatening from the north.
Ironically, it’s possibly because of this deep interest in the literature of Saxons and Norse that I hadn’t read any historical fiction on this period. That is, until I went to English Heritage’s Festival of English History at Kelmarsh last month, met Giles Kristian and bought the first in his trilogy of Raven novels.
These books tell the tale of a young lad with a blood-red eye, unable to remember his name, family or birthplace, but taken in and named Osric by a mute carpenter in Wessex. Their lives are altered forever when some of the first Norsemen to raid English shores arrive. More than forty mighty men, bearded, encased in armour, arms wrapped in silver rings, shields wall-locked, swords and spears in hand, in search of honour and glory, destroy the village and Osric is taken prisoner.
Their jarl, Sigurd the Lucky, recognises that his fate is tied to that of the young lad with the blood eye. Others among his men, notably their godi Asgot, regard him as a harbinger of death. And with a raven’s wing sewn into his hair Osric becomes Raven. It’s not long before Raven, seated on his treasure chest, at his own oar aboard the dragon vessel Serpent, knows that he will follow Sigurd, his jarl, to the ends of the earth. Over the course of the three books, that’s a fair assessment of what Raven and the other wolves of Odin do.
Raven: Blood Eye follows Raven as he gets to know the men that will become his sword-brothers – Sigurd, Bram, Svein, Olaf, Black Floki and so many others. After being tricked by a Wessex ealdorman, Ealdred, the Norsemen are left with no choice but to leave their ships and head overland to Mercia to steal The Holy Gospels of St Jerome. Ealdred sends with them his priest, Egfrith. Once in Mercia, the wolves also discover Cynethryth, Ealdred’s daughter. From that moment, the battle for her soul and heart begins, while treachery also lies in wait for Sigurd and his pack.
In Raven: Sons of Thunder the Norsemen chase Ealdred to the land of the Franks and Charlemagne. Single combat – possibly the most exciting and vivid description of such a duel I’ve read in a book – combines with devious plots, scraps and battles as the wolf pack makes its way to Paris and beyond. Raven continues to prove himself in battle, tying himself closer to Sigurd and his warriors, which now include Wessex men and Danes. The journey of Cynethryth, however, is far more dangerous.
Finally, in Raven: Odin’s Wolves, there is no choice for men after silver and glory than to continue their journey around the edges of the world to Rome and Miklagard (Constantinople). They have it in their power to place an emperor back on his throne while winning untold riches and stories that will be sung around halls for generations. But silver and gold aren’t everything. The pull of mead and wine (as they grow accustomed to it), women, and glory in combat lead the men to stay in Rome, amongst the remnants and ruins of a city of giants. As the Norsemen learn the stories of the past might of Rome from Egfrith they seek to win their own glory in the arena of the Colosseum. But finally they must make their way further east to even more elaborate walls and palaces – and even more deviant foes. But the price is very high indeed.
To describe each of these three books is difficult. They are all excellent, brilliantly written, but each must be read in turn, leading up to the thrilling, dangerous and bloody climax for Raven and his sword-brothers. The descriptions of Rome and Constantinople in Odin’s Wolves are superb but so too are the scenes in Paris in Sons of Thunder and the depictions of early Norse encounters in Wessex in Blood Eye. Every bit as compelling as the battles are the scenes in which Christians, Muslims and Norse circle one another, with their different languages, beliefs, gods and values.
Giles Kristian is steeped in his Norse past and it’s not easy to know what to praise first – the little details that make this world seem real, the many characters, each with their own identity, failings and strengths, the dialogue, the resolute determination of this wolf pack, the mythology. These novels provide a fascinating depiction of life in 8th-century Europe – for rich and poor, men and women, Christian and heathen. You can smell the muck and the stench of life on the streets of these towns, in battle, in prisons, on the boats. The story is gripping, as is the prose. We are carried along on the wave of Sigurd’s ambition, just as his glory-hungry men are.
The skill of the Raven novels, though, is that Giles Kristian makes us like his wolf pack – more than like them. There is no shying away from the brutality of their lives – other life is cheap, women are there to rape or sell, paying respect to one’s enemy may well mean ripping the ribs from his spine and pulling his lungs through his back in a gruesome parody of the eagle. But these warriors have sworn an oath to their lord and they are tied to him and his mission. Their bravery, convinced that if they die with a sword in hand they will live through death to drink in Odin’s meadhall, cannot fail but to win over the reader. These Norsemen are terrifying and yet we are won over because we are put into their lives.
Raven describes another world, one very different from our own, and from the one that preceded it. Yet, reading these three books, you may as well close your eyes and smell and see Wessex, Paris, Moorish Spain, Rome, Constantinople and that other world that the wolf pack sing and dream of while in their cups or slashing their enemies with sword and axe.
Giles Kristian is next turning his attention to the English Civil War. I fully expect to be immersed in it.