27 September 2008

Locus Magazine's Paul Witcover reviews Cecelia Holland

from Locus Magazine, September 2008

Varanger, Cecelia Holland (Forge 978-0-7653-0558-9, $24.95, 304pp, hc) April 2008. Cover by Glenn Harrington

The prolific historical novelist Cecelia Holland continues her quintet of meticulously researched, vividly imagined, action-packed novels exploring the Viking impact on tenth-century Northern Europe and North America in Varanger. While the first three novels in this fantasy-tinged series (The Soul Thief, The Witches' Kitchen, and The Serpent Dreamer) focused on the larger-than-life figure of Corban Loosestrife, a Viking renegade fated (or cursed) to lose everything he holds dear while cutting a bloody swathe through the old world and the new, Varanger (the word signifies both a place and a people) shifts to his son, Conn Corbansson, and his nephew, Raef, who have remained in Norway after Corban's return to Vinland (events recounted in the previous two volumes). Although there is a lengthy and complicated backstory to this novel, which takes place fifteen or more years after the events of The Soul Thief, Varanger is not strictly speaking a sequel to its predecessors, and in any case Holland drops enough information about what's come before to make it perfectly readable as a standalone... though anyone who does so is apt to find themselves so smitten by this author's muscular prose and rare empathic talents that they will want to read everything by her they can get their hands on.

While The Serpent Dreamer set its course across the Atlantic Ocean and even farther to the west, Varanger moves east — from Norway to Kiev, and from Kiev to the edge of the Black Sea and the fringes of the Byzantine Empire. One wonders if, in the final volume, Holland will circumnavigate the globe.

The book opens with Conn and Raef wintering in the bleak river town of Holmgard, where they remain in the employ of a fellow Varanger, a merchant and raider called Thorfinn. Conn and Raef bear a certain renown for conspicuous bravery during and after a fierce sea battle at Hjorunga Bay, where the Norsemen won a crushing victory against the invading Danes — the side that Conn and Raef had the bad luck to be fighting for. This aspect of the novel intersects glancingly with the Jomsvikinga Saga, a 12th-century Icelandic poem of unknown authorship that promiscuously mingles history and legend, just one of the source materials that Holland has expertly plundered to give her tenth-century world a pitch-perfect ring of authenticity.

Thorfinn owes allegiance to Holmsgard's ruler, Dobrynya, who himself owes allegiance to the Knyaz, or king, of the Rus, a young man named Voldymyr whose seat of power is the city of Kiev, and who dreams of allying himself with the distant Byzantine Empire — which has so far ignored his entreaties. When Dobrynya travels to Kiev, Thorfinn and his band accompany him, and Conn and Raef find themselves caught up in a scheme by Dobrynya and Voldymyr to sail down the Dnieper River in old Viking longboats, take the rich Black Sea city of Chersonese, and thus gain the attention — and hopefully, with the city as a bargaining chip, the support — of the great empire.

Holland is a skillful stylist and plotter. Her battle scenes are especially fine, the action related with precision but also capturing the headlong confusion of fast, brutal combat. And her depictions of the clash of cultures between Varanger, Rus, and Byzantine, as well as between pagans, Christians, and Muslims, are thought-provoking and convincing. But it's as a psychologist that she really shines. Her ability to create characters that seem true to their time and place yet are fully accessible to the sensibilities of a modern reader is nothing short of uncanny.

She lavishes these talents on Conn and Raef. The two young cousins, bound by history, family, and brotherly love, are very different. Conn is a natural leader, unusually strong and clever, with impulsive instincts that draw the admiration of men and women alike, but which can also lead him astray. Raef is a bit otherworldly, touched with supernatural abilities seemingly inherited from his mother; he can glimpse the future, perhaps even manipulate it to some extent, but he finds this ability deeply disturbing and distrusts it. Nevertheless, he can't always resist or ignore it. Despite this ability, or because of it, Raef is an exceptionally rational person, possessed of a fierce and hungry intelligence, and as such often tempers Conn's impulsivity; Conn, to his credit, recognizes Raef's worth and is smart enough to bow to his wisdom when it matters. The cousins shine against the savage backdrop of their surroundings like uncut diamonds in a seam of coal; they belong to their world and time yet also offer a heartrending glimpse of what lies beyond that dark age. Their exceptional natures are recognized by all — rewarded by some and resented by others. From these raw materials, Holland has crafted a riveting, deeply moving novel as exceptional, and as true to life, as her two heroes.

Read more! This is one of twenty book reviews from the September 2008 issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe or buy the issue.
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