The High City

Written by Cecelia Holland
Review by B. J. Sedlock

This novel continues Holland’s Viking series. Raef Corbansson is grieving the loss of his cousin Conn, who lies dead back in Kiev. Because the coming winter makes it impossible to return home, Raef marks time by taking wages to row for a trading ship in the warmer climate of the Greek Sea. A storm and the subsequent shipwreck land him in the middle of a Byzantine civil war, where his aid in disabling the stone-throwers earns him an offer to join the imperial Varangian guard. Constantinople’s size and richness dazzle Raef, but despite having acquaintances in the guard, he is reluctant to enlist. His non-servile attitude lands him in trouble when he insults Helena, wife of co-Emperor Constantine. Constantine’s brother Basil, who holds the real power, seizes an opportunity to send Raef on a mission that should rid him of both his traitorous sister-in-law and the troublesome Viking.

Readers who want to be spoon-fed information may have problems staying with it, but those who are content to wait for the author to reveal plot points and relationships will be more than satisfied. In the beginning, Raef doesn’t speak Greek and is a stranger in a strange land, also leaving the reader in the dark, at least at first. Ancient place names had me checking the reference books, and dates have to be deduced from the context. But this is not meant as a complaint. The thing I enjoy most about Holland’s books is that they introduce me to eras and settings I don’t know much about, while making me care about the characters. As always, her historical detail, such as Byzantine court intrigue and military life, is very vivid. The High City is well up to Holland’s standard.