My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Harald Hardrada is one of my FAVOURITE Viking Kings EVER! I have read both fictional & non-fiction books on his epic journey from zero to hero but I will confess Justin Hill's 2nd novel which focuses on this giant of Norse history, is the first that has made me fall deeply in love with him. Almost as much as I fell in love with King Cnut in Helen Hollick's Hollow Crown.
Harald's is a story that involves him facing and overcoming challenge after challenge and shaping him to be the great Norwegian King, as great as the tales tell him to be.
My favourite part of the entire book has to be when Harald reaches Miklagard, the Great City, Constantinople (Istanbul) - the city, society, landscapes, people and of course the very treacherous politics was superbly captured and brought alive on the page. There is one particular and relatively minor conflict Harald gets embroiled in as he serves amongst the Emperor's armies, involving one of the men of the many crews he now commands, and the choices he makes in that event is the strongest indicator of the kind of leader and ultimately King Harald will mature to be. I won't give away too much detail about the situation but it is a clear & firm demonstration that Harald is a man worthy of following and more evidence of why so many did.
There are of course lots of more everyday scenes involving Harald that better define his character and personality, be it with his crew, his mistress or wives, with his children or even when he is talking to a General or an Emperor. Each of these scenes is distinctive and sometimes emotionally touching. I have laughed with Harald, cried with Harald, cheered with Harald, even yelled in anger or shock with Harald. You really do get under the skin, into the blood and dive in his soul as you read each chapter.
Within each chapter I found there was at least 1 line I read that would stick in my head for hours after I had put the book down (which was only ever when I was working I must admit). I found so many literary gems amongst the prose that I started adding them to my own personal list of favourites and it grew and grew as I read the book. I won't list them all as they might hint at spoilers for new readers but I will mention the first line that I was struck by. It was when Harald was with his brother, King Olaf's army, waiting to face the rebellion forces. Harald remarked to himself that Death is like going to sleep, it's living that hurts. If you hurt you know you are alive. Or something like that, to that affect at least. Having recently, in the past year, encountered death through my father, and having had morbid thoughts about what dying is actually like, this one line made a lot of sense to me and I could see how that would bring some comfort & strength to a young warrior facing his first fierce battle. It also showed that this was a Viking who due to his Christian upbringing at least, was considering more than just what kind of afterlife he might have in heaven, he was actually contemplating how he transforms from earth to heaven through death. It is a small yet significant way of reminding the reader that at the end of the day, despite his momentous life & impact on history forever, Harald was still a human being, like ourselves, who will consider his own existence and the sad and often scary fact that we all die in the end. Albeit in Harald's time death & dying was more common and more visible than it is in the 21st century.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and it's beautiful and masterful telling of Harald's life. Highly recommend to fans of Vikings, 1066, or just Historical Fiction in general.
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