Winter’s Fire | Giles Kristian | 2016 | Bantam Press | 311p | Review copy | Buy the book
Winter’s Fire is the second novel in Giles Kristian’s latest Viking series which tells the tale of young Sigurd Haraldarson’s rise to glory, a story that is later continued in Kristian’s superb Raven trilogy. Winter’s Fire follows on directly from God of Vengeance and so you should certainly read that first. The review below assumes that you have, although little is given away of what went before.
It is Norway in AD 785 and Sigurd Haraldarson’s reputation as a mighty warrior has spread across the land. Many, including Sigurd himself, believe he is Odin-kissed, a favourite of the gods. But Sigurd is still a young man and, although he has won the fine ship Reinen, he has few men to pull its oars and little silver to win more warriors to his cause. Sigurd’s father, a great warrior and jarl, was betrayed and murdered by King Gorm alongside the rest of his kin and most of his men, but Sigurd, the one remaining son, is not yet a jarl himself. Warriors are sworn to him, including fierce Olaf, frightening Black Floki, and Shield Maiden Valgerd, but they are not enough. Before he can destroy King Gorm, Sigurd must win more men, more silver and more fighting glory. But King Gorm is no fool. He knows this young warrior, whose reputation grows daily more fearsome, will come for him. That’s if Gorm hasn’t killed him first.
And so begins another great voyage through Viking seas, a lost yet gloriously evocative world that Giles Kristian brings alive in such a way that is almost unchallenged in historical fiction. Giles Kristian has Norse blood in his veins and he doesn’t waste a drop of it. The language of these novels – of the Rise of Sigurd series and the utterly brilliant Raven books – is so rich in Viking history and myth. A glossary helps the reader to understand some of the language and this is a good tool to have but I am so pleased that these words are used. They fit with the landscape – the seas, the long halls, the forts, islands and mountains of rock, ice and snow. They allow us to feel more at home with the banter, thoughts and dreams of these warrior men and women. In this world, weapons have names and, just like their ships, have an inherent power. Battles on sea and land are commonplace and they are bloody, with limbs lopped and heads discarded, but the language and the characterisation let us inside this other world and it is thrilling to be there.
Winter’s Fire is full of action from the outset, all set within an icy winter during which no-one but the most desperate would put his ships to sea. But nobody can be more driven than Sigurd. And yet there is another side to him that we see when he tries to care for his sister and also as he realises that, although he loves all of his men, there is one warrior, the Shield Maiden, who has captured his heart. Sigurd is a young man, trying to prove himself as lord, warrior, friend, brother and man, and it’s this rough journey that we follow here. There are chapters when we leave Sigurd and are given glimpses into King Gorm’s court. From these scenes comes the tension – Sigurd is a hunted man.
This isn’t just Sigurd’s story. New characters join those we have met before and it’s good to get to know all of them better. I particularly enjoyed the glimpses we are given into the life of Sigurd’s sister. She is just one of several intriguing female figures. This is by no means an entirely male world.
God of Vengeance is a hard act to follow and, even though I thoroughly enjoyed Winter’s Fire and can’t praise it enough, I don’t think that it quite equals the brilliance of the earlier novel. This is partly because I think it would be a tall order to equal such a novel but also because Winter’s Fire, perhaps inevitably, does have the feel of a middle book. Sigurd has reached the stage where he must consolidate his earlier achievements before he can bring about his destiny. Winter’s Fire looks back to God of Vengeance while also looking ahead to the next novel which, judging by this book’s events, is going to be a belter.
Reading a new Giles Kristian novel is such a pleasure, whether it’s about the Vikings or the English Civil War, and I have had a wonderful couple of days reading Winter’s Fire. If you haven’t read any of these books yet then I would suggest you wait no longer. This is historical fiction at its finest.