Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Last Viking

Poul Anderson was one of giants of the golden age of science fiction and fantasy, authoring vintage classics like Three Hearts and Three Lions. But he also wrote historical fiction, including a trilogy about Harald Hardrada, a Norwegian king whose failed attempt to conquer England in 1066 marked the end of the Viking Age. I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of the Kindle version of The Golden Horn, book one of his Last Viking Trilogy. Here’s my review.

Set in the mid-eleventh century, The Golden Horn by Poul Anderson covers the early life of King Harald Hadrada. At the time of the novel, Harald is a Norwegian Prince in exile after Cnut the Great, king of Denmark and England, defeated Harald’s half-brother, King Olaf the Stout, to claim Norway’s throne. This is the second book I’ve read about Harald, but it’s the first one that portrays him as a noble – yet highly ambitious – hero.

After his half-brother’s death, Harald flees to Russia (which, incidentally, had been founded by Northmen) to the house of Jaroslav, Grand Prince of the Rus. There, Harald grows into manhood as a seven-foot-tall warrior, whom Anderson describes as “curt and haughty” with “small taste for bookish learning.” He’s the classic warrior-hero of twentieth century fiction, along the lines of Conan the Cimmerian, for “no one could stand before him in battle or sport.” All Harald dreams of is reclaiming Norway’s throne, but until the moment is right, Jaroslav convinces Harald to bide time in legendary Miklagardh, where he could win fame and fortune serving in the emperor’s Varangian Guard.

Miklagardh – a Norse name for Constantinople – is where most of the book takes place, and gives the book its title, the “Golden Horn,” referring to the primary inlet of the Bosporus around the great city. It is also the place where the book hits its stride, as Harald soon finds himself caught up in the politics and machinations of the Byzantine court. After joining the Varangians, a group of rollicking Northmen who serve as the emperor’s elite soldiers, Harald becomes noticed by the Empress Zoe, a bawdy, yet cunning woman rumored to have poisoned her first husband. He also earns the attention of John the Monk, the emperor’s ruthless and conniving brother. Both have designs for the young Norwegian prince, whom they view as a valuable pawn in their Byzantine games.

Much of the book concerns Harald’s military adventures as he and his Varangians battle Saracens, Normans, and Bulgarians at the emperor’s behest. But it is Harald love affair with Maria, the beautiful daughter of a Greek nobleman, that is the novel’s most compelling storyline. Maria serves as a lady in the empress’ court, but Zoe is none too pleased about her relationship with Harald, which ultimately puts the Norwegian prince at odds with the most powerful woman in Byzantium.

While there is plenty of action in the story, the novel also contains lengthy doses of exposition. I viewed the exposition as a welcome lesson in history, although I could see some readers wanting to skip through it, since it tends to slow down the pace. Overall, however, I found The Golden Horn to be a worthy piece of historical fiction that should appeal to anyone interested in Harald Hardrada, medieval Byzantium, or the works of Poul Anderson, one of the legendary authors of fantasy fiction’s golden age.

Update: Amazon has just added a fantastic new link that allows you to preview any Kindle book before you buy it. You can preview The Golden Horn here.


Mark Watkins said...

Poul Anderson's viking books are amongst my most favorite books. Hrolf Kraki's Saga might be my favorite Viking book of all time and in my top 10 or 20 favorite books. I didn't know they'd put The Last Viking out on Kindle, thanks for making me aware!

Joseph Finley said...

Mark - thanks for the comment! I think it's great that publishers are starting to go back and but those vintage classics in an ebook format. I like the new cover art too.

Mark Watkins said...

You're welcome! I like the new cover art as well....

MT Biker Chick said...

Now that I've seen your review, I'll get the book. Thank you!

Joseph Finley said...

Thanks for the comment, and I'm glad the review could be of some help!