This fourth entry in the Corban Loosestrife saga takes us from frozen Viking trading posts to the outskirts of the Byzantine Empire. The first installment moved from raids on Ireland to conflicts in York and Scandinavia (Soul Thief, HNR 21). The second entry (Witches’ Kitchen, HNR 28) crossed the Atlantic to Vinland and back while introducing Corban’s son Conn and Raef, a nephew begotten when Corban’s sister was raped by a Viking. The Serpent Dreamer (HNR 36) shifted back to Vinland and does not relate much to the work under review.
Conn and Raef ultimately pledge their services to Volodymyr, the leader of the emerging Rus people, a mixture of raiders and traders and locals. Conn charms the scarce women and leads the fierce men, while his brother is more given to introspection and an incipient feminism resulting from empathy for his violated mother. Other characters include a Muslim scholar from Bagdad, a Viking who turned Christian because Christ seemed to be winning over the other gods, a kidnapped princess from the semi-legendary Jewish Khazars, a Hun slave woman, and a sly government official from Byzantium. However, action takes up more pages than culture or religion as our heroes slash enemies and false allies through the ice and snow, navigate their dragon boat down thawing rivers, and sail over Greek fire to capture Chersonese. Volodymyr’s conversion to Christianity and subsequent marriage to the Emperor’s sister can be seen as the founding event of the Russian people, a key turning point in history.
Whether read independently or as part of the series, this novel represents another contribution from one of our finest, best known, and most prolific historical novelists.