Adventures in Bookland: Viking Fire by Justin Hill

When I read Shieldwall I suspected it. Now, having finished Viking Fire, the second in Justin Hill’s Conquest trilogy, I know it: he’s the best of us. Darn it. In Viking Fire, it’s not just that he reveals a complete mastery of narrative devices (Shieldwall is third person with multiple points of view), for Viking Fire is, mostly, told in the first-person of Harald Hardrada, nor that he tells an extraordinarily rich and involving story (Harald’s life is such that it would require incompetence on the level of genius to make it uninteresting). No, the key facet of Hill’s writing that sets him over and above the usual hack-n-slash merchant of Dark Age historical fiction is his mastery of language. I took four months over the reading of this story not because it was uninvolving and uninteresting, but because I wanted to linger over it.

Shieldwall, set in England during the reign of Aethelred the Unready, is written with the beat of Old English poetry running through its rhythms: the lines lengthening and shortening in keeping with the pace of the story, but all held to together by the alliterative beat and the four-stress pattern of Old English verse. Not only that, but the word choice is careful and precise, eschewing later imported loan words for those words in modern English that can be traced back to Old English. So, unlike most historical fiction, the language Hill used in Shieldwall underscores, underlies and deepens the story, rather than being, albeit unconsciously, at odds with it (as often happens with writers less sensitive to these linguistic echoes).

Now, with Viking Fire, Hill’s hero is a Viking, a Norwegian, whose life takes him from the fjords of the north, through Rus, to the great city, Constantinople, and the warm sea at the world’s heart. In keeping with the protagonist and the time and places in which he lives, the language Hill uses has changed: the rhythm is different, matching that of the prose sagas that have come down to us from the northlands, and with echoes of the hugely complex, percussive rhythms of the skalds, the court poets and PR men of the Viking kingdoms. But when Harald takes employment under the Emperors and sails, with his crew of Northmen, the Mediterranean, then there enters the story hints of the rhythmic phrasing of Homer and even, in the more languorous passages where these northern warriors settle down under the southern sun with wine and good food and women, something of the ease and flow of Ovid. There’s not many writers who can manage this precision of language, and no one else working in this genre today.

Darn it, he really is the best of us.


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