Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Golden Horn by Poul Anderson

Byzantine “Immigrant Song”
Poul Anderson is best known as an author of science fiction and fantasy novels. In 1998 he was named a Grand Master of Science Fiction by the Science Fiction Writers of America, probably the most prestigious lifetime achievement award in that field. He also, however, wrote historical novels, and if his 1980 book The Golden Horn is any indication, darn good ones. (Wikipedia says he cowrote this novel with his wife Karen Anderson, but the recently published ebook edition from Open Road Media does not bear her name anywhere.) The Golden Horn is the first book in Anderson’s The Last Viking trilogy, a three-part fictionalized biography of Norwegian King Harald Sigurdharsson, also known as Harald Hadrada, who lived from around 1015 to 1066.

Harald is the nephew of King Olaf the Stout, who reigns over Norway during the novel’s opening scenes. When Olaf dies in battle, Harald is not first in the line of succession (Olaf had a son), but he nevertheless sees himself as a contender for the throne. Before he can make a play for the crown, however, he must first acquire wealth, soldiers, and military acumen. To accomplish this, he spends several years fighting as a mercenary, first for a Russian prince and then for the Eastern Roman Empire in Byzantium. The title of the book refers to the body of water in Constantinople known as the Golden Horn, which feeds into the Bosphorus. Harald fights nobly for the Empire, crushing infidels in the name of Christianity, and rises in rank until he reluctantly attains a place in the emperor and empress’s inner circle. While his military success brings him great wealth, it also proves to be a trap, as Byzantine court intrigue threatens to derail his plans to return to Norway and reclaim what he feels is his rightful place as king.

Though there’s a lot of Game of Thrones-style political maneuvering in this novel, despite Anderson’s fantasy background you won’t find any supernatural occurrences here, which is as it should be. Anderson sticks very close to the historical script and displays a hardcore devotion to the facts, perhaps too hardcore for some readers. While I admire the relentless authenticity with which Anderson tells this tale, at times it feels like a full-immersion session in Viking language day camp. The text is so loaded with Norse words and 11th-century proper nouns it is often more difficult to get through than science fiction and fantasy books that invent their own languages. Dune at least has a glossary; The Golden Horn could use one. Instead, the reader is expected to be familiar with words like jarl, carle, byrnie, wadmal, liefer, rede, or thing (in this case, an assembly or meeting). The genealogy of the royal Yngling family is confusing (though Anderson thankfully provides a chart), as is the revolving-door cast of Byzantine emperors. Anderson really makes the reader feel present in that time and place, but the disorienting level of detail does at times hinder one’s appreciation of the narrative. On the plus side, the battle scenes are exquisitely rendered, the characters are well-drawn, and Harald’s mission is compelling. On the other hand, the book does have its slow periods, and Harald’s impatience to return to Norway is contagious.

Sometimes a trilogy means three separate connected novels, and sometimes a trilogy means one epic work split into three sections. Given the biographical nature of this series, The Last Viking is obviously the latter. The Golden Horn reaches an adequate stopping point but doesn’t really feel like a complete novel in itself. Anyone with an avid interest in Viking lore will be happy to tackle all three books, but the casual history buff might find that too daunting a task.
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