The Bear of Byzantium (Wolves of Odin 2)
1041. Harðráði (Harald ‘Hardrada’ Sigurdsson), his second-in-command Valgarðr and the Varangian Guard, the Byzantine emperor’s personal guard, defeat the Bulgars at the Battle of Ostrovo. Six thousand strong, the Varangians comprise men from the northern Baltic and Rus, their Viking warrior skills hardened by battle. Halfdan, and his crew on the Sea Wolf, shadow Harðráði’s journey back to Constantinople, and the men eventually meet. Halfdan’s seer Gunnhild negotiates for the crew to join Harðráði’s Varangians, for which role they must feign allegiance to ‘the nailed god’ and swear an oath to the imperial throne. Constantinople is a new world for these men, and they have to navigate the new pecking order. Gunnhild takes a house in the city, and soon people are coming to her for healing. Her fame grows, and she is called to service the Empress Zoe herself.
The emperor is ill, and Halfdan’s crew become embroiled in imperial intrigue. They find their oath of allegiance put to the test as a struggle for the throne ensues. Which thread in the weaving of the Norns is Gunnhild’s destiny?
Leaping straight into the personal drama between various commanders, this story is well written and full of fascinating characters with an exciting, complex plot. It’s a bit uncomfortable that there’s no clear protagonist; Harðráði is the eponymous ‘bear’, but the
hero of the series is Halfdan, and Gunnhild seems to direct most of the action. Attention to the detail of these 11th-century mercenaries’ lives really makes the story come to life. The details of Gunnhild’s Seiðr (Nordic magic) practice are fascinating. The battle scenes are choreographed and gory. All of the main characters here are taken from real history. Turney seems not just to know the period, but to understand it in the second volume in the Wolves of Odin Series.