Holland, Cecelia. Varanger.

NY: Tor, 2008.

Holland, who is almost exactly my age, has been writing historical fiction since college, and I’ve been an avid reader of her work since the beginning. She’s covered the whole length and breadth of history and geography in that time. Lately, she’s been doing a series about early medieval Norse/Irish culture featuring settlers in Vinland and the wars of Sven Forkbeard and the introduction of Scandinavian fighting men into 10th-century Constantinople.

The next-to-last of the saga (the fifth novel in a series of six — so far, but that’s probably all) is The High City, which features the formation of the Varangian Guard. This one comes immediately before it. (Yes, I seem to be re-reading them in reverse order.) Conn Corbansson and his cousin, Raef, who are closer than twins, have survived the mythic battle at Hjorunga Bay and are presently hanging around the little town of Novgorod, having crewed that far with Thorfinn, a Norse fur trader. The Rus of Novgorod and Kiev are the descendants of Rurik and his followers, who arrived almost a century earlier and took over (and who will become the founders of the aristocracy of Russia for the next thousand years), and things are pretty tense between them and those Northmen who showed up later. Volodymyr (Vladimir, that is), who is the Prince of the whole area, has ambitions to have his power and rank recognized by the Emperors of Byzantium by forcing them to provide him with a Greek princess as a bride, and he figures he can do that by capturing one of the cities on the Black Sea and making a trade. And so off he goes down the Dnieper with a half-dozen somewhat antiquated dragon ships and with the two cousins being dragged along through the oath of service they had given the Prince’s uncle. Of course, none of them really have any idea of the scale of the Byzantine Empire nor just how small fry the Rus are in the scheme of things. Raef, who is god-touched and knows things he logically shouldn’t, has a bad feeling about the expedition, and he’s right. Volodymyr will get what he wants, more or less, but everyone else will suffer for it. The Rus will be forcibly Christianized, Conn and Raef will both lose the women to whom they’ve become attached, and one of them will lose a good deal more than that.

Although there are some very good scenes along the way, the plot-line as a whole seems somewhat less controlled than in most of the author’s books. Holland doesn’t do break-neck adventure, preferring a more thoughtful and observant pace. In nearly all her books, she shows you what’s happening from the viewpoint of a minor character watching from the background. Someone whose presence may be crucial but whose name won’t make it into the history books. And the characters here are, in fact, very nicely developed. But the pace actually seems to plod in places.

And I have to question one point, especially: The journey down the river from Novgorod to Kiev seems to take them a week or two, which is probably about right — but the rest of the trip, from there to the river’s mouth near the Crimea, doesn’t seem much longer. And that’s some 1,300 miles, which is a couple seasons’ travel time when you’re mostly rowing, even for the ship-savvy Norse, and especially on a constricted waterway. Well, I urge you to start at the beginning of the story, with The Soul Thief, and enjoy the whole epic, as written by someone who knows that “viking” is just a job and not a nationality.


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