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Thursday, March 12, 2009

“Raven: Blood Eye” by Giles Kristian (Reviewed by Liviu C. Suciu)

Official Giles Kristian Website
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INTRODUCTION: I had not heard of Giles Kristian or his debut novel “Raven: Blood Eye” until Robert suggested it to me based on my strong interest in historical fiction which represents about a third of my fiction reading. While I’m not that interested in Viking novels overall, I have read some with the superb alternate history series Hammer and the Cross by Harry Harrison and the excellent Varangian Guard standalone novel “Byzantium” by Michael Ennis staying fresh in my memory even after 10+ years since reading them. So I checked out an excerpt from the book and decided to give it a try. And I have to say that I did not regret it at all. For not only did I enjoy the book much more than I expected, but now I can’t wait for the next volume in the series so I can continue reading the adventures of Raven and the Fellowship...

SETTING: England in the early 800's is a backward, sparsely inhabited place. Politically fragmented between many small, mostly nominally Christian “kingdoms”, the country and its people are vulnerable to sea raids from the neighboring “Danes”. However, the times are changing, and not for the better since a much more terrible kind of invaders, the pagan Vikings of Scandinavia, are starting their epic historical raids that will take them as far as Byzantium, Russia and Baghdad, in the process creating the Norman duchy in France, and later the first powerful English monarchy. For these Vikings, the disunited England is a plum setting for their plunder...

The novel starts in 802 AD. Osric/Raven was discovered two years previously near the isolated English village of Abbotsend. Around fourteen, with no memories and marked by a spooky blood-red eye, the boy was cast out by the villagers. Fortunately, Osric was taken in as an apprentice by the respected mute village carpenter Ealhstan, although most of the village population still hates or fears him, most notably the priest Wulfweard who regards Osric as “demon spawn”.

When the coast is raided by a Viking war bad led by the famous jarl Sigurd the “Lucky”, Osric is thrown into the center of events and finds an unexpected bond with Sigurd himself when he saves the brutal Norseman from a treacherous death. Later, Sigurd names the young man Raven for various reasons...

FORMAT/INFO:Raven: Blood Eye” stands at 352 pages divided over twenty-one numbered chapters. The novel opens with a historical note about the Vikings, a map, a list of characters and a prologue narrated by Raven in old age so we know that he survives his trials. The narration is in the first-person present tense except for the prologue and epilogue interludes. “Raven: Blood Eye” is self-contained bringing its main thread to a reasonable close, but the story will be continued. February 26, 2009 marks the UK Hardcover publication of “Raven: Blood Eye” via
Bantam UK.

PLOT HINTS AND ANALYSIS:I know nothing of my childhood, of my parents, or if I had brothers and sisters. I do not even know my birth name. And yet, perhaps it says much about my life that my earliest memories are stained red. They are written in the blood that marks my left eye, for which men have always feared me.”

This second paragraph of the novel sets the tone for “Raven: Blood Eye” and immediately put me in the mood for a “blood and guts” historical epic. A page-turner from the very beginning, “Raven: Blood Eye” is pure epic action, with group battles and single-combat scenes so vividly done that you can almost hear the clash of steel and see the flow of blood. Bu there’s also intrigue and treachery, loyalty and passion, and old Nordic gods and human sacrifices superimposed against the dominant Christian religion of England, as well as greed and plunder.

Sparse but powerful prose illuminates the saga of Raven’s life who grows on you as a powerful character from his humble beginnings to his acceptance in the Norse fellowship, while Sigurd dominates every scenes in which he appears.

On the surface, “Raven: Blood Eye” may appear to be an old-fashioned Viking saga, but its sensibility is purely modern from the graphic description of brutality—including the Norsemen’s method of human sacrifice which is known as the “Eagle”—to the “realistic” rough-sounding language of both warriors and peasants, as well as the explicit sexual innuendo. But nothing in the book seems excessive, artificial or done for the effect so to speak.

The English names in the book meanwhile (Ealhstan, Ealdred, Cynethryth, Weohstan, Coenwulf, etc.) can be quite convoluted, while the Nordic ones are much easier to bear with Olaf, Glum and Asgot perfect complements to our two main characters.

Stylistically, “Raven: Blood Eye” remains grounded in the “real world”, though there are clear fantastic elements implied in the weird capabilities of Osric who finds himself able to speak the Norse language when the invaders first appear, and later is perceived by some as a favorite of Odin, the father of the Gods.

Regarding the main thread of the novel, I do not want to spoil any of the book’s numerous twists & turns. So in short, once Osric joins the Vikings as a barely accepted junior member of Sigurd's fellowship, the book becomes a non-stop roller coaster ride with one adventure after another as Osric slowly proves himself; gains a “viking” name; makes friends as well as enemies; discovers both the exhilaration and brutality of combat as well as the drinking, rape and plunder that follows victory; and finally meets a girl that may be his match...

In the end, Giles Kristian’sRaven: Blood Eye” is highly, highly recommended, especially if you like “blood and guts” epics and historical fiction. It’s also an outstanding debut and one of the biggest surprises of the year for me...


Steven Till said...

This sounds like my kind of novel. Is it considered historical fiction or fantasy or a blend of both perhaps? I enjoy studying the "viking" period and reading historical fiction set in that time period. Have you read any of Bernard Cornwell's Saxon series? It also covers this time period.

Liviu said...

Raven: Blood Eye is not fantasy so far, but it definitely has the potential for introducing fantastic elements

I never got into Mr. Cornwell's books - I generally tend to like historical fiction where the French win or at least they are the heroes :) - but I will check the Saxon series

Anonymous said...

It is rather interesting for me to read the article. Thanx for it. I like such topics and everything that is connected to them. I would like to read more soon.

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