Harrison, Harry. The Hammer and the Cross.

NY: Tor, 1993.

The late Harry Harrison is best known for his rather tongue-in-cheek science fiction, especially the “Deathworld” and “Stainless Steel Rat” series. But he also had a more straightforward side, as with this first volume in a trilogy set in 9th-century England, and focusing on the invasion of the Viking Great Army, led by the four sons of the murdered Ragnar Lothbrok.

Ragnar is considered by some historians to be a semi-mythical person but his offspring and descendants were certainly real enough, and they took a gruesome revenge on Aella of Northumberland.

But the main character of the story is Shef, a thrall (slave), whose mother was a local lord’s lady in East Anglia, raped by a Danish raider twenty years before. His mother’s husband loathes him for all he represents, and so does his half-brother, the heir, and both of them make sure he knows it. (“Shef” is a dog’s name, which tells you where he stands in the scheme of things.) And then there’s Godive, theoretically his sister, but she was gotten by the lord on a concubine, which means Shef and the girl have no actual blood-ties. It’s complicated.

When the Great Army shows up, Shef’s English “father” is captured and treated horrendously, and Godive is abducted. Shef pretends to go over to the invaders in order to penetrate their camp and effect a rescue, but one thing leads to another, and before long he’s an accepted member of a crew. More important, he finds he has a natural military sense, a shrewd command of strategy and tactics, and visions of revolutionary new weapons — all of which seem to come from his dreams, which take him to the halls of the Norse gods.

And at this point, you begin to realize that (obvious fictional characters aside) the author is actually writing an alternate history novel. These Vikings are far more tenacious than in our history. They’re highly independent and individualistic, but they also manage to function cooperatively with a high degree of success. And there’s an Norse evangelical movement, started a couple of centuries before, the priests of which are warriors and craftsmen themselves, and whose goal is to fight the repressive and obscenely wealthy Christian Church. (There’s no doubt about Harry’s opinions on that subject.)

Shef makes possible the capture of York, and the defeat of the Mercian king, who is trying to move into the power vacuum in Norfolk. He frees, recruits, and trains other English slaves who have no love for the Church. He becomes first a carl — a free soldier — and then a jarl, or earl. He makes common cause with Alfred, the new king of Wessex, who is also having problems with the gold-crazed, power-mad Christian priests. And then he has to deal with an entirely new invasion from the Continent, promulgated by the pope and led by Charles the Bald.

This world is going to be very different from our own, and Harry does an excellent and highly accurate job with the social setting, the complex politics, the psychology of the time, and the military details. It’s a frequently bloodthirsty story, too, but that’s how things were at the time. It’s also an interesting contrast with Bernard Cornwell’s more strictly historical treatment of the same period and many of the same events. I recommend you have the next two volumes ready to hand because you’re going to want to know what happens next.

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