Harrison, Harry. One King’s Way.Enter a post title

NY: Tor, 1995.

This is the middle volume of a historical fiction/almost-fantasy/alternate history trilogy, and it fills that function quite well. The first volume of a trilogy introduces the plot and the characters and the closing volume answers the questions, resolves the problems, and ties everything together. The middle volume has to advance the narrative, to explain to the reader why all this is important, but it’s allowed to close with a cliffhanger. The middle volume is frequently the weakest part of a three-decker, but not this time.

The story began in The Hammer and the Cross with a depiction of Northern Europe in the 9th century, the world of Ragnar Lothbrok and Alfred the Great, but it adds in the Way, a sort of evangelical Norse-myth-based religion that has a bone to pick with the invasion of the North by Christianity. And it introduces Shef, a young peasant, half-English and half-Danish, who is destined (literally) to change the world.

The author paints the Church as a very unpleasant institution to be under the thumb of, as its English slaves can testify, and in that regard he’s entirely correct. Not that the old Norse beliefs were any less bloody-minded (though much more pessimistic), but the priests of the Way, who actually work for a living, may be able to find a balance between them.

So Shef has killed Ivar the Boneless in one-on-one combat, one of the most vicious semi-fictional characters you’re likely to come across. He’s now head of an Anglo-Norse army determined to defeat the rest of the Ragnarsson brothers. And he has become Jarl of East Anglia and a close ally of Alfred, the new king of Wessex, who has driven the Church out of his own country. All of this was accomplished largely because Shef has a very technologically inventive mind, and now he has designed a new kind of warship, a “battle-ship,” which includes the catapults that were so effective in his earlier campaigns. And his disciplined English recruits — nothing like the individualistic Viking warriors, who sneer at them — have become a force to be reckoned with, armed with halberds and rapid-loading crossbows.

Shef’s intention is to bring the Ragnarssons to battle on the sea, thereby protecting England, but in the first half-successful skirmish, he gets separated from his ship and finds himself embarking on an extended journey into the far North. At the same time, the German bishops who are slowly taking control of the Church (via assassination much of the time) have instituted an elite armed force, the Lanzenorden, to protect Christian priests who venture into pagan territory. But their real quest is to locate the Holy Lance with which the Roman soldier (a German) killed Christ on the cross. And that appears to have disappeared into the North, too.

The overarching theme this time is the “king’s way,” the path any man who wants to be (or remain) king in the Northern lands must follow to prove his right to rule. And Shef is following that path, though he doesn’t realize it until nearly the end. The Way has a prophecy regarding a coming King of the North, and maybe Shef is it.

Harry’s writing is clear and to the point and even when he brings in bits of fantasy about quasi-trolls, he makes the whole thing perfectly believable. The characters are nicely developed, from the English soldiers who have acquired pride and taught larger warriors to respect them, to Viga Brand, “Killer Brand,” whose personality is undergoing a slow shift, but who is still one scary son of a bitch. Have the closing volume ready to hand, because you will want to go straight to it.


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