Author – Giles Kristian
Pages – 354
Format – Ebook
For two years Osric has lived a simple life, apprenticed to the mute old carpenter who took him in when others spurned him. But when Norsemen from across the sea burn his village, Osric is taken prisoner by these warriors. Their chief, Sigurd the Lucky, believes the Norns have woven this strange boy’s fate together with his own, and Osric begins to sense glorious purpose among this fellowship of warriors.
Immersed in the Norsemen’s world and driven by their lust for adventure, Osric proves a natural warrior and forges a blood bond with Sigurd, who renames him Raven. But the Norsemen’s world is a savage one, where loyalty is often repaid in blood and where a young man must become a killer in order to survive. When the Fellowship faces annihilation from ealdorman Ealdred of Wessex, Raven chooses a bloody and dangerous path, accepting the mission of raiding deep into hostile lands to steal a holy book from Coenwolf, King of Mercia.
There he will find much more than the Holy Gospels of St Jerome. He will find Cynethryth, an English girl with a soul to match his own. And he will find betrayal at the hands of cruel men, some of whom he regards as friends.
This is the first book I’ve read as part of my #Norsevember reading event and for the most part, it was bloody brilliant.
I’m not a fan of coming of age stories but this didn’t really feel like one because of the sheer amount of action and history. Our protagonist (and first person POV) is the titular character, Raven (or Osric before he meets the Norsemen). He’s around 16/17 years old and has no real memories, having been found and taken in by an English village a couple of years previous.
He’s not liked or trusted by most of the village, mainly as a result of the red eye he possesses as a result of a blood clot, the result making people fearful. Soon into the book, a band of around 50 Norse warriors lands on the coast, which kicks our story off. Raven discovers that he is able to speak their language, which hints at his own backstory.
Fast forward a bit and the majority of the plot centres around Raven’s assimilation into this group of Norse warriors and their growing acceptance of him, aswell as their journey of survival and the search for riches and glory.
What I loved about this book is how much history, Norse and English culture it fits in and you’ll genuinely learn a lot as you progress through the book. It feels particularly immersive and made me want to watch Vikings and The Last Kingdom again. As with the charismatic Ragnar in the Vikings series, we have Jarl Sigurd who is the leader of the Norse warriors. He sort of begins to act as an authority figure to Raven as he learns what it takes to be a warrior, a transition from scared lad to a vicious fighter.
Sometimes it’s easy to forget he actually is only a teenager as in some of the battle scenes he holds his own with the other men – this is kind of unrealistic in some respects, especially for someone with so little experience but it made for a good story. There are other occasions in which things work out a little conveniently but it is fiction afterall.
There are some upsetting moments where you really feel for our main character, and more than a fair share of close scrapes with death, as well as moments in which you are begging him and his comrades to survive, or sometimes simply to take vengeance. For this reason it felt like a real page turner as there was plenty of action and drama dragging you through the story.
It was easy to get invested and care about the fates of a number of characters, and there were many who were very colourful and entertaining – on both the Norse and English sides. It was really fun to follow Raven’s story as he fights alongside the Wolves and we get an insight into what it is to be a Norse warrior.
It’s especially because of these plus points that I felt really deflated reading this story with around 40 or 50 pages remaining. Our main character rapes someone. Am I being hypocritical choosing to criticise it here when I’ve not done so with other stories?
I don’t feel I am, because here it is a suckerpunch. It wouldn’t have affected the plot had it been left out and it arrives out of the blue. If added as part of a redemption arc I feel there are other ways to achieve this than using rape and it took away all the feelings of attachment to that character and the rooting for him I had done all the way through the book.
I read on (and the rest of the book was still great as I’m sure the rest of the series is) but I know for some this will be a complete deal breaker and they’ll put down this book unfinished whether they loved the rest or not. He’s a character that has showed a degree of morality up until that point – yes he’s had to learn to survive in a harsh and brutal environment but there is enough decency to at least make him an anti-hero.
That’s why it felt like a particularly low blow and made me put the book down for a couple of days. I will point out that it is literally just a couple of sentences without any in depth descriptions and he immediately regrets it. I’m not naïve enough to think it didn’t happen – I know it happened a lot. But in this fictional story, there was the opportunity for Raven to turn down the chance when ‘offered’ the girl by another warrior. Even take her back to his tent and just pretend he had. Nobody knew what had happened.
I’m not trashing the author here. Or telling you not to read it, but I feel as someone recommending books I have a responsibility to warn you about this in case it is something that will affect you or simply because you don’t want to read a book with this in it, which is fair.
Speaking to somebody who has read the whole series, I am told this is a one-off thing which is encouraging, as I thoroughly enjoyed the rest of the book; it’s exciting, well written, funny at times, brutal, immersive. It’s a shame one particular moment leaves a bad taste in the mouth but nevertheless I will read the other books – I just have to adjust my feelings about the main character, Raven and accept that he’s not the character I thought I was riding along with.
If you can get past this and you like Norse culture, England in the middle ages or well researched historical fiction jam packed with action you’ll absolutely love this book.
Thanks for reading!