The Bear of Byzantium is the second instalment in S. J. A. Turney’s new Wolves of Odin series which began with Blood Feud, the story of Halfdan and his quest for revenge against Yngvar, the man who killed his father. Where the former took readers on a thrilling journey from Sweden to Kiev, bringing a fresh new angle to tales of Viking exploits, which often focus on Scandinavia and Anglo-Saxon England, this next chapter in the series goes further afield, sending Halfdan and company to the greatest city in the known world – Byzantium. There they are drawn into the service of the eponymous ‘bear’, Harald Hardrada, perhaps known to most readers for his failed claim to the English throne in 1066, but seen here earlier in his career as a mercenary, deeply embroiled in the murky world of politics at the court of Emperor Michael IV.
As with Blood Feud the strength of this second volume is in Turney’s imaginative use of the historical record, and poetic sources such as Viking saga, combined with his knack for engaging story telling. The plot develops briskly and maintains a compelling pace, twisting and turning several times, whilst Turney’s eye for a hard hitting fight scene remains assured. The author doesn’t shy away from depicting some truly grisly moments, reflecting the hard-hitting realities of politics in early medieval Byzantium, and Turney gives the reader a real sense of the precariousness of power through the characters at court, in particular Zoe Porphryogenita, the ageing Empress at the heart of the factional disputes. Consequently The Bear of Byzantium excels at providing both dramatic action sequences and thoughtful explorations of the political and cultural context in which the story takes place. As such it’s a novel that will satisfy both stalwart fans and newcomers alike.
Following a brisk and bloody prologue set at the Battle of Ostrovo the reader is swiftly drawn into a tale of intrigue in which the two lead characters, Halfdan and Gunnhild, must do their best to survive in a strange, unfamiliar place. Halfdan is swiftly recruited into the Varangian Guard, sworn to protect the Emperor, whilst Gunnhild must fend for herself in the vastness of Byzantium. This parting of the ways enables the reader to explore Byzantium from two different perspectives, and makes Turney’s evocation of the city as a vast cultural melting pot particularly successful. For our heroes it is a place simultaneously full of familiar pagan remnants and practises, such as the consulting of seers and fortune tellers by prominent nobles, and yet dominated by the power of Christianity, a faith which as followers of the old gods they find alien.
This tension makes for a compelling backdrop, whilst also playing a key role in the plot, particularly in the case of Gunnhild, the seer. Her sex makes her, in theory, an outsider to the world of high politics that Halfdan and Hardrada become immersed in, and so she is forced to rely on her intellect, shrewd judgement and faith in the gods to navigate her path. As a result she emerges as one of the most engaging characters, one it is a joy to follow, and the way in which the novel bounces back and forth between its two heroes, and their respective plots, ensures that The Bear of Byzantium keeps the reader thoroughly gripped.
Turney states in his historical note that the Wolves of Odin is projected to be a six volume series and with the thrilling conclusion to The Bear of Byzantium the prospect of the further adventures of Halfdan and Gunnhild ensures that fans of action packed historical fiction have yet more treats to come.