A Burning Sea is the third instalment of Theodore Brun’s Wanderer Chronicles. Up until now the series, set in the eighth century, has been a Viking Saga. In this latest book the troubled hero, Erlan Aurvandil, turns his back on the dark pagan forests of Scandinavia and sets out on a quest for spiritual peace in a distant Christian empire to the south: Byzantium.
Unfortunately for Erlan his timing is rotten. He reaches the Bosporus just before the army of Maslama ibn Abd al-Malik and the start of the second Arab siege of Constantinople (717AD). Erlan’s luck with women is almost as poor as his timing. His old flame, a deposed queen named Lilla, has followed him from the north, handily accompanied by the book’s best character, Einar Fat-Belly.
Students of Byzantine and Viking history will enjoy the foreshadowing of Erlan’s trek down the very rivers that a century or so later would become a staple trade route from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Perhaps more significantly, this later contact also brought mercenaries to Constantinople and from the tenth century, thousands of Northmen formed the famous Varangian Guard: the Byzantine Emperor’s crack troops. In the fictional Erlan and his axe-wielding friend, Einar, we get to witness prototypical Varangians fighting to protect both their own Queen Lilla and the medieval Queen of Cities.
This is historical fiction of the Bernard Cornwell variety. The pace is brisk, the action is plentiful, and the combat is never too thick to prevent a jovial sidekick from cracking a good line. It is a book full of plot and to a degree that comes at the expense of atmosphere. Although Erlan and Lilla spend over half the book in Constantinople, the city never quite feels fully formed. The culture-shock of the Viking protagonists seems rather mild. The rituals, ceremony and protocols that governed life in the Byzantine court and the all-pervasive presence of its faith are not greatly developed except in so far as necessary to drive the plot points onward. For many readers that will come as a blessing. This is an all-action Viking adventure with Byzantium as its mosaic background rather than an immersive historical novel where you can smell the incense and hear the tinkle of stemma pearls in the vein of Mika Walteri, Mary Renault or Dorothy Dunnett.
It is clear that Brun has done his homework on the siege. His multi-character perspectives allow the reader to experience it from both the frontlines and the emperor’s command post. All the major moments of the siege are captured as well as the political games used by the emperor, Leo the Isaurian, to keep the Umayyad prince off balance.
Whilst the Byzantine Empire is criminally underappreciated in the west, most people have seen the famous depiction of Greek Fire from the Madrid Skylitzes. A story called A Burning Sea set against the Arab siege demands a climax suitably dripping in liquid fire and here Brun delivers in gallons. His writing throughout is crisp and enjoyable, but much like his hero, it goes up a gear when the battle-frenzy sets in.
In this era of the trigger-warning, readers should be cautioned on the book’s use of the anachronistic term ‘Byzantine’ for people who self-identified as Roman. The B-word can be nails-on-a-blackboard to fans of the Eastern Roman Empire. I may be influenced by having made the same decision as Brun for my own Byzantine novels, but in his author’s note he makes the case for its use very convincingly.
As a stand-alone adventure, A Burning Sea is an entertaining story set against an under-explored moment in history. For fans of the first two Wanderer Chronicles it represents a broadening of Erlan Aurvandil’s world and sets up a potential homecoming for Brun’s itinerant hero.
Peter Sandham is the author of a series of historical novels set in the second half of the 15th century charting the fall of Constantinople and subsequent geopolitical turmoil through the eyes of Byzantine Greek, Venetian and Ottoman protagonists. Porphyry and Blood is his latest.