It is 1081 and there is no limit to the ambition of the Emperor of Byzantium. He has set his sights on the ‘fire drug’ of the East, a fabulous powder that explodes when lit, rumoured to exist on the other side of the world in China. Vallon, a Frankish knight in the Emperor’s service, is promoted to General and given orders to lead a small force on a mission to China, bearing gifts and promises to be exchanged in return for this miraculous weapon. The mission, though, will take years and Vallon expects few of his men to survive the hazards of the journey. He himself has no illusions concerning the chances of returning safely to his wife. With him, though, are old friends from an earlier adventure who for one reason or another have travelled to Vallon’s home – Hero the scholar and Wayland the falconer. With them will also travel Vallon’s adopted son Aitken, his door warrior Wulfstan and Lucas, a young overzealous and uncontrollable spirit who has his own reasons for making this long and onerous trip.
Hawk Quest was one of the most ambitious and outstanding works of historical fiction published in 2012. Ten years in the making, it was (and is) everything you’d want from a historical saga, not to mention a hard act to follow. In Imperial Fire, Robert Lyndon picks up the lives of Vallon, Hero and Wayland several years after their previous mission from England to retrieve rare white falcons from the far north and carry them eastwards to Byzantium as ransom. Hawk Quest is a stand alone novel as is Imperial Fire and so you do not need to have read one to enjoy the other. However, by having read Hawk Quest first, you would know enough about Vallon, Hero and Wayland to love them, worry for them and understand the great sacrifice they are making by embarking on a second adventure, this time to a place so distant it is barely even a myth.
This novel introduces new characters into the mix and there’s nothing quite like a perilous journey into the unknown to bring out the best or worst in people. One youth, Lucas, is a fascinating addition to the group. His emotions are all over the place, as are his intentions, and this realism is typical of the strong characterisation in these novels. He is a puzzle to his companions on the journey, as are others, and this adds great depth and curiosity to the novel.
Vallon, Hero and Wayland are not the same men that they were in Hawk Quest. All that they achieved before, including wives, matters less to them than this quest and that in itself is mysterious. They are each after something or there is something in store for each of them that they need to do. As a result, Imperial Fire is full of side adventures, stories and distractions. There are sections when we veer off course from the journey, leaving Vallon and his men for a while, while we follow one of the others on their own more personal missions. These were, for me, the highlight of Imperial Fire and were the most memorable sections of the novel, most especially when Wayland trains an eaglet in the mountains of Tibet.
The journey itself is deadly (and hugely exciting time after time) and there are dangers throughout, Vikings and pirates, hostile tribes and bandits, and, particularly frighteningly, threats from within. There are also temptations, not all of them to do with treasure, and there are women along this journey who influence events and steer the men in other directions. As in Hawk Quest, the female characters are strong and provide welcome colour and feeling.
Unlike Hawk Quest, there is much here that is bleak. Vallon has an air of gloom and menace surrounding him and he is not alone. There are moments in the novel that are truly gutwrenching – there is no guarantee of survival for anyone in Imperial Fire and I was shocked and upset at times by the power of the story, especially towards the end. This mood did make Imperial Fear a disturbing read at times but it is also a consuming read, evoking brilliantly the details and spirit of the times, becoming even more riveting as we are taken to unknown places. China is wonderfully created and does indeed show how far our adventurers have come. It is an incredible journey for everyone with some of our earlier ideas about the main characters turned on their head. Imperial Fire is an extremely absorbing and rewarding read and, no mean feat in itself, a worthy successor to Hawk Quest. What a fine writer Robert Lyndon is.