Review: Viking Fire by Justin Hill

Rob Poyton is a writer, martial artist and musician, and founder of Innsmouth Gold. He has released a number of CDs and books inspired by the works of HPL and REH, including short story collections and the first two titles in a Sword & Sorcery series, The Wolf Who Would Be King. Originally from East London, he now lives in rural North Bedfordshire where he raises an army of killer chickens.

The Dark Ages and all things Viking certainly seem to be high profile at the moment. Bernard Cornwell’s saga of Uhtred of Bebbanburg The Last Kingdom just aired series four. TV has also brought us Vikings (which I thought was okay) and two series of the Netflix comedy Norsemen (which I loved!) The written word is no different, with a slew of Viking-based books coming out over the past few years.

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I picked up Viking Fire in my local library and enjoyed it so much I went out and bought a copy! Published in 2016, this is the first book I’ve read by Justin Hill. I later found out that Viking Fire is second in the series of Conquest novels, based around the events of 1066, but as the stories do not particularly cross over, I had no problems reading them out of order.

Viking Fire tells the story of the legendary Harald Hardrada, or King Haraldr Sigurðarson, to give him his full title.  Hill begins with Harald as a boy in his father’s house, who hero worships his older brother (King Olaf, later St Olaf). From there we follow Harald, through early fights and his growth to manhood. He then battles across Kievan Rus to reach Micklegard (Constantinople), the heart of the Byzantine Empire. Here, he rises in power, gaining enough wealth to return home and lay his claim to the title King of Norway. But even this is not enough and Harald’s lust for power and vengeance leads to him make a grab for the throne of England, climaxing in events at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066.

So that’s the story, all based on historical events, even though Harald’s life sounds like something out of Robert E. Howard - an adventurer, mercenary, king, conqueror, administrator and hero of the Icelandic sagas! Hill paints a vivid picture of the times, with great attention to detail. The saga is written from Harald’s perspective and crackles with life. Here’s an extract from one of the many battle scenes:

I felt spears stab towards me as I leapt to my feet and my sword struck left and right. Blood sprayed down like rain. A bearded man drove a spear at me. It grazed my side. I kicked him in the midriff, knocked the teeth from the next with a punch of my sword hilt. His head came free a moment later, as I jumped down, gathered his shield where he had dropped it  – a single handed brass thing, not much bigger than a bucket top – and punched it so hard into another’s nose my knuckles bled.
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Crom! Vivid, brutal but also full of intrigue and romance, you can’t help but like the main character, hardened warrior that he may be. So for me Hill’s novel works on two levels. First, as a historical novel, albeit perhaps tweaked in places for dramatic effect... though this was a life full of action and intrigue! Nonetheless, the language, the descriptions, the various characters’ attitude and actions all ring true. Nothing jars more in an historical novel than modern dialogue (“Hey, you guys, let’s go hunt some Saxons, yeah?”) or cod-Elizabethan (“What sayest thou we go hunteth yon foe?”). Hill avoids both and his dialogue fits perfectly.

Second, it works well as a pure Blood and Thunder novel. Albeit there is no real supernatural element but comparisons with REH at his best hold true. In any event, REH was, in my eyes, largely an historical fiction author. Someone even made a point recently that, if you think about it one way, the Hyborian Age is historical...

For me, then, this was a great read and on finishing I instantly ordered a copy of Shieldwall as well. Justin Hill has written a number of other novels, including a sequel to the hit movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I shall no doubt seek those out at some point, having been a keen student of Chinese martial arts in the past! I noticed in his bio that he also studied Old English and Medieval Literature at University, which no doubt contributes to the veracity of his prose. To sum up, I think this is the best of the current Dark Ages novels, or at least level with Scott Oden! It’s a must read for fans of bloody historical fiction, for those who enjoy the feats of grim warriors and for those who love the rhythmic pounding of sword on shield.