Many thanks to Justin and Little, Brown for the review copy, in exchange for this review.
A sweeping story of adventure, danger and drama, Justin Hill’s Viking Fire is a novelisation of historical events – the story of Harald Hardrada, from his youth in Norway to his invasion of England in 1066. It’s a wide-ranging story spanning the majority of Harald’s life and moving across large swathes of the continent as Harald pursues his fate, from the fjords of Norway to the warm seas of the Mediterranean. Along the way he fights on land and sea, meets Kings, Emperors and Empresses, wins hearts and loses friends; he’s driven to survive and succeed, and realise his ambitious dreams.
Told mostly in conversational first person as though being related by Harald himself, this has the feel of a spoken saga complete with long, breathless sentences and personal recollections ranging from starkly vivid to strange and dreamlike. It’s an effective choice by Hill, nicely in keeping with Harald’s Norse upbringing, and while it might take some getting used to it ties the story together really well. This isn’t a long book, so unlike some extensive historical retellings the pace is quite rapid; Hill slows down and lets the story develop where he needs the reader to really pay attention, but keeps things moving for the long journeys and endless battles, giving us enough information to follow Harald’s story without spelling everything out for us. At times it maybe feels like there’s more of the story to tell, but that’s a small sacrifice for keeping the plot moving and maintaining a compelling narrative.
As you’d expect from a first person tale, Harald is the dominant character. Family, companions and enemies come and go, few staying very long, but many of them influence Harald’s life and viewpoint, as do the places he travels to and through. Hill portrays him as a poetic soul despite the violence of his life, capable – and desirous – of much more than what’s expected of him but also very analytical and self-aware. He’s as brash and boisterous as you’d expect from a Viking, but he’s also intelligent, honest and pragmatic. His key feature, however, is his drive and determination, which – along with no small amount of fortune – see him survive, travel, grow and succeed. He goes through a lot, changing and growing as he goes, and Hill does an beautiful job of describing both the places Harald goes and the way he grows.
There’s a certain sense of inevitability here, like most historical novels, but put aside what you know and you can just enjoy the story. History notwithstanding, essentially this is a well-told, vivid and exciting adventure story which feels as much like a classic fantasy adventure as it does a historical novel, although you don’t quite get the extreme highs and lows that you might in a similar pure-fantasy story (though Harald’s adventures are hardly what you’d call grounded). Crucially, though, it’s a lean and tightly-plotted book which avoids so many of the pitfalls of the long, epic historical or fantasy novels while retaining the core feel of the genre(s). Whether you’re after the history or the excitement, there’s a lot to enjoy here.