by Cecelia Holland
Review by Andrew Brooks
Forge Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765305589
Date: 01 April 2008 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Corban Loosestrife's son Conn is a clever and strong leader of men; his cousin, the god-touched Raef, is his shield and navigator. They have joined a fur-trading ship to Russia, and are forced to over-winter in Novgorod. While there, they take service with the leader of the Rus, Dobrynya, and with him travel south to Kiev, and then on with a raiding party into the northern reaches of the Byzantine Empire.
Holland's Varanger continues the saga of Corban Loosestrife in this fourth volume of a planned five book-series, although Corban, the series protagonist thus far, is absent from the novel. Instead the narrative follows Conn and Raef as they set off on their own quest for honor, glory and gold. But it's not a lighthearted, devil-may-care duo of marauders that Holland presents the reader with. Rather, Conn and Raef come across as very real figures in a gritty and vividly crafted world from the ancient past.
Those expecting the usual blasť barbarian adventure in which the heroes bluff and hack and one-line their way through countless enemies, with hundreds of decapitations and many fountains of blood, might be disappointed in Varanger. Those who enjoy a well-crafted story told through the eyes of two fully realized characters will find plenty to like. It's up to readers to decide which type of story they're looking for here. Neither Conan nor Wulfgar are anywhere to be seen in Varanger. Frankly, I'm not sure they could have hacked it here.
Just landed at Novgorod, a settlement in the northwest of what is now Russia, Conn and Raef settle in for one of the most brutal winters imaginable. Two men freeze to death at one point, literally within a few good strides of a roaring fire. Their winter stay sees the pair not only working to keep themselves alive by trekking across a frozen lake in search of firewood (Ice Road Truckers, eat your heart out), but becoming tangled up in the machinations of the leader of the Rus, Dobrynya. Whom they then pledge themselves to when the magnanimous and pompous leader sees they're perfect to help him go a-viking down to Kiev and beyond. This is where the story really begins to get moving, although I did appreciate Holland taking the time to set up both of her characters and fix in on the times in which they walked. Or rowed.
Events move quickly when Raef and Conn meet Dobrynya's nephew, Volodymyr. Like all young men with chips on their shoulders, Volodymyr is feverishly intent on making a name for himself and establishing his place in the world. His plan: capture the city of Chersonese, a city of the Byzantine Empire, which is the old-world equivalent of tugging on Superman's cape. Yeah.
Conn and Raef, using the latter's skill with navigation and his supernatural far-sight, lead Dobrynya and Volodymyr across the Black Sea to the city of Chersonese, where they find about what they'd expected the whole way. A trap. The battles that ensue are exciting and, at times, heartbreaking, but always realistic to the times in which Holland has set her story.
Raef does have an awareness that is considered fantastic, but all magic in the novel is subtle. He does not shoot fireballs out of his eyes nor raise armies of the dead. So be warned that if that is the kind of fantasy you're expecting, best you look elsewhere.
Varanger was, to me, a refreshing change of pace as far as epic fantasies these days are concerned. It's more of a historical fiction romp sprinkled here and there with reserved dashes of magic. This book is all about the characterizations and the complete immersion into this ancient time, and Holland does a phenomenal job of that. I can't place my finger on exactly how she does it, but she manages to write a very convincing tale of what might have been. Her descriptions, the characters' speech and thoughts seem very appropriate and not at all overreaching or burdensome.
This isn't your typical fantasy, so if that's your cup of tea you might not enjoy this novel. If you can handle a few days without elves or evil lords, though, check this one out. There's an added bonus here: When you read a Cecelia Holland novel, you finish the book smarter than when you started. That should be the case with all books, of course. But Holland introduces her research into her work so seamlessly it's a joy to learn more on every page. Recommended for those who have tired of evil lords and teenage boys looking to save the world and get the girl.