Viking Fire | Justin Hill | 2016 (22 September) | Little, Brown | 379p | Review copy | Buy the book
In 1030 King Olaf of Norway is slain in battle by forces loyal to Cnut the Great. Olaf’s younger brother Harald, this his first taste of war, is dragged from the slaughter, not expected to survive his wounds. But survive he does, hidden away by caring hands, fuelled by plans of vengeance. Homeless and hunted, Harald thrives as a warrior for hire, attracting larger numbers of followers with his acts of bravery and the treasure that results. Harald’s adventures take him across the frozen north, pitting him against fearless chieftains, and then on to Rus before he arrives in Mickelgard – Constantinople – and there Harald wins glory as a protector of Emperors, even a lover of Empresses, as he fights for his new overlords across the Mediterranean, from Jerusalem to Italy and Sicily.
Always, though, Harald waits for the time when he can return to Norway and reclaim his throne. And there he can earn the name of Harald Hardrada, the Hard Ruler, and be heralded as the greatest warrior of his age. But Harald is not a man who can rest and his dream of winning everything and more that Cnut achieved drives Harald on to England. The year is 1066.
Viking Fire immerses the reader in a the last golden age of the Viking World which arguably reached its height with the extraordinary larger-than-life figure of Harald Hardrada. Harald’s world was as big as his ambition and Justin Hill covers it all, providing especially memorable sections set in the north and then in Constantinople. The contrast between these two places is enormous and yet Vikings were powerful in both. How Harald and his men adapt from fighting brutal rogue chieftains in frozen forests and on ice to dealing with lethal Byzantine politics in perfumed palaces of princes and eunuchs is incredible. Justin Hill describes both worlds so well, and somehow Byzantium seems even deadlier than surviving a frostbitten night on a storm-battered mountain.
Harald, a faithful Christian (and brother to Saint Olaf), even makes it to Jerusalem where he tours the sites of the Bible, following in the footsteps of a Christ he views as a warrior god, holding court in a great heavenly hall of rejoicing Vikings. Harald escorts to Jerusalem from Cyprus the masons who will build the Holy Sepulchre – I love moments like that in historical fiction. They make the hairs stick up on the back of my neck.
The novel resonates with these two different worlds, their different forms of Christianity, their entirely different ways of ruling. But the book also presents intimate portraits of the men and women of the time and not just Harald. We meet the women that he loved and the men who fought alongside him, creating bittersweet relationships. Viking warriors are not always the easiest of men to get along with! The Byzantine rulers, especially Theodora, are enigmatic figures, hardly likeable but most definitely charismatic – and scene stealers.
Viking Fire is told in Harald’s own words. His intention is to tell the life of his brother Olaf, once King and now a Saint but this is most definitely Harald’s own story, revealing the extraordinary life of a great warrior and good king who also played a significant role in England’s fate during that year of destiny, 1066. Above all else, this is a novel of adventure and bloody action and is thoroughly entertaining throughout.
Justin Hill writes so well, capturing the times but making them fully accessible, while telling the engrossing and adventurous story of a man who deserves to be remembered but has been overlooked by that other warrior who followed him, William the Conqueror. But it was Harald who was the last and greatest Viking. It’s a tremendous story.