Harper, 2009, ISBN 978-0-00-728798-7. 352 pages.
Third in the Oathsworn series, following The Whale Road (reviewed here earlier) and The Wolf Sea (reviewed here earlier), The White Raven is set in the winter of 972-3 AD, mainly in what is now Russia and the Ukraine. Olaf Tryggvason (later King of Norway), his uncle Sigurd, Vladimir Prince of Novgorod and his uncle Dobrynya are historical figures. All the main characters are fictional.
Orm and the remaining Oathsworn are living on a farmstead in Scandinavia granted them by Jarl Brand, and one of them, Kvasir, has married a capable wife, Thorgunna from the neighbouring farmstead. Orm would like to settle down and earn a reliable living by horse-breeding, but the rest of the Oathsworn are obsessed with returning to Attila’s tomb, deep in the steppes, in search of the hoard of cursed silver that cost many of their comrades their lives (recounted in The Whale Road). When a raid captures Thorgunna’s sister Thordis, the Oathsworn take to the seas again, sailing to Novgorod and trekking across the winter steppes in search of revenge and riches. But they are not the only ones out on the steppe in this bitter winter. Young Prince Vladimir of the Rus wants the treasure to finance his wars against his rival brothers; Brondolf Lambisson wants it to rebuild his dying town of Birka; and the fearsome Amazons, woman warriors of the steppe, are oathsworn to protect the hoard to the death against all comers.
Like its two predecessors, The Whale Road and The Wolf Sea, The White Raven is a larger-than-life adventure, a “saga to be told around the fire”, as the author puts it. On their quest for a hoard of cursed treasure, the Oathsworn encounter monsters (given a poignant modern twist), impossible battles against the odds, the treachery and friendship of princes, and legendary female warriors.
Olaf Tryggvason, nicknamed Crowbone, was the outstanding character for me. A couple of decades later, he was to become a notable king of Norway; here he is an enigma in the shape of a nine-year-old boy with an uncanny wisdom beyond his years, clearly destined for great things. An inspired touch was to make him a gifted storyteller, always ready with a tale to illuminate – often uncomfortably – the current situation. According to the Historical Note, this ability of Olaf’s is fictional, but the rest of the events involving him are documented (minus Orm and the Oathsworn, of course) in the Saga of Olaf Tryggvason. Whether the saga was itself recounting sober historical facts or adding its own embellishments is a different question.
The characters of Thorgunna and Thordis were also strong aspects of the novel for me. In the previous two instalments, women have been either disposable slaves or witches with hints of dark supernatural powers. In Thorgunna and Thordis we meet the capable, forthright, down-to-earth Norse women so familiar from the Icelandic sagas, women who are strong-minded and courageous without the need for swords or sorcery. The Amazons of the steppe are based in part on archaeological excavations of tombs of women armed as warriors in the Ukraine, southern Russia and Kazakhstan. A sort of female counterpart to the Oathsworn themselves, they are a warrior band sworn to their leader and each other, dedicated to protecting the memory of the long-dead Attila.
The plot rattles along at a dizzying pace as the Oathsworn encounter one adventure after another on their quest first to rescue Thordis and then to return to Attila’s tomb and its hoard of unimaginable riches. This instalment completes the Attila plot that was begun in The Whale Road, and resolves the plot threads that were left hanging at the end of that book. The story of Attila’s tomb seems to be at an end now (or at least, I cannot see how it could reappear), but the same is not necessarily true of the Oathsworn, who will return for at least one further adventure in Book 4, The Prow Beast.
The political and military rivalries between the Rus princes (Vladimir is a major secondary character) make for a suitably dramatic backdrop as the Norse colonies up and down the great rivers are starting to form the beginnings of a state, which will be the forerunner of Russia and the origin of its name. A helpful Historical Note outlines some of the underlying history, which, as so often, is stranger than fiction (assuming one counts the Saga of Olaf Tryggvason as history), and a map at the front helps to follow the far-faring Oathsworn on their journeys.
Larger-than-life adventure saga following a band of tenth-century Norse warriors on their quest for the cursed treasure of Attila the Hun, through the biting cold of the winter steppe, battles with monsters and Amazons, and the shifting politics of the emerging Rus kingdoms.
25 March, 2012
Harper, 2009, ISBN 978-0-00-728798-7. 352 pages.