Prior to 1066, Bloodie Olde Englande was a fine arena for politically inflected combat—and veteran historical novelist Holland is just the writer to bring it back to life.
In this rousing sequel to The High City (2009), and the concluding volume of a series begun with The Soul Thief (2002), Holland connects numerous attempts to dethrone borderline-scumbag monarch Ethelred (the Unready) with the tale of itinerant adventurer Raef Corbanson, recently returned from Constantinople and now having cast his lot with displaced Scandinavians residing in the Viking town of Jorvik. The complex plot knits Raef’s seemingly inherited out-of-body powers with his pursuit by the vindictive wraith of the Lady of Hedeby (a nemesis prominently featured in earlier volumes), who is herself empowered to “enter” others’ bodies (e.g., that of Ethelred’s somewhat dumpy current consort). Such outbreaks of supernaturalism seem suited to a culture grounded in folklore and magic, and add vigorous counterpoint to Holland’s sure-handed deployment of conflicting acts of aggression and conquest (at one point, no fewer than five forces contend for Ethelred’s crown), which eventually embrace the Unready one’s stalwart progeny Aethelstan and Edmund; powerful Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard and his sons (bloodthirsty Harald and innately noble Knut, later Canute); Ethelred’s unconscionable enforcer Eadrich Streona; murderous Jomsviking mercenary leader Thorkel the Tall; and a dozen or so other slashers, burners and co-conspirators. Holland’s battle scenes are brilliantly, viscerally detailed, and she’s even better in quieter scenes that provide illuminating contrasts—notably, those revealing the impulse of Raef’s embattled wife Laissa toward the strange new doctrine of Christianity, and the struggles of ill-fated heir to the throne Edmund to honor his essentially dishonorable father.
The work of a true master of her much maligned genre. If you love history, do not under any circumstances overlook or underestimate Cecelia Holland.