Thursday, May 27, 2010

Raven: Blood Eye by Giles Kristian - Viking Week


For two years Osric has lived a simple life, apprentice to the mute old carpenter who took him in when others would have him cast out. But when Norsemen from across the sea burn his village they also destroy his new life, and Osric finds himself a prisoner of these warriors. Their chief, Sigurd the Lucky, believes the Norns have woven this strange boy's fate together with his own, and Osric begins to sense glorious purpose among this Fellowship of warriors.Immersed in the Norsemen's world and driven by their lust for adventure, Osric proves a natural warrior and forges a blood bond with Sigurd, who renames him Raven. But the Norsemen's world is a savage one, where loyalty is often repaid in blood and where a young man must become a killer to survive. When the Fellowship faces annihilation from ealdorman Ealdred of Wessex, Raven chooses a bloody and dangerous path, accepting the mission of raiding deep into hostile lands to steal a holy book from Coenwolf, King of Mercia. There he will find much more than the Holy Gospels of St Jerome. He will find Cynethryth, an English girl with a soul to match his own. And he will find betrayal at the hands of cruel men, some of whom he regarded as friends...

An opening line that starts thus:

'I do not know where I was born. When I was young, I would sometimes dream of great rock walls rising from the sea so high that the sun's warmth never hit the cold, black water....I know nothing of my childhood, of my parents, or if I had brothers and sisters. I do not even know my birth name.'

..really does make you want to curl up and read more, doesn't it? And it now annoys me in retrospect that it's taken me a while to sit down and read Raven: Blood Eye because I could have hung around with Osric (Raven), Sigurd and the boys, a whole lot earlier. But, having said that, I strongly believe in a bit of chaos theory: things come to you when you're ready.

So, Raven came to me and I fell in love. First of all, having met Giles Kristian at the book launch for the second book: Raven: Sons of Thunder, I was struck by how charming he was, but also how immersed he was in his writing. During his speech when he thanked various people for their help he mentioned things like: steering the dragon ship along the whale road and he mentioned skalds and other words which now escape me, as it was some time ago. I initially thought, yeah yeah, Kristian, good one, playing the game, live up to the heritage and the writing and the research. But honestly, having read both these books, in rapid succession, I now suspect that that speech was probably more real than I had anticipated.

When I say this novel is immersive, I mean it. It's written in a very macho way. No, that sounds wrong. It's written in a manly way, hua! How can I describe it? The writing reflects the characters, the age and the rough camaraderie and friendship that bonded these raiders and warriors together. Therefore the use of language is strong, sometimes violently over the top, as it is seen from Osric's point of view initially and he's only a young boy.

You can't write about Vikings and tough guys without violence and death. But there are ways to do so and still retain your reader's belief in your characters and the action. Mr. Kristian manages that with devastating ease and bearing in mind, this is his debut novel, you can't help but think that maybe, just maybe, he was channeling something from a previous life? I'm kidding, of course, about the previous life thing, but honestly, the battle scenes are nasty and vicious and yet they never made me want to put the book down and I never caught myself thinking, okay, this is rubbish, it's going a bit over the top and becoming pointless and gratuitous. And yes, that rumour you've heard about the blood eagle explained in great detail, but not with relish, is as grim as you can imagine. *shudder*

The story is held together by Osric/Raven. A deeply human character with flaws, hang-ups and strengths and insecurities, we at first experience the terror of the raid on his village coupled with the fact that he can actually understand and speak these invaders' language! Having been found two years before, no one really knows anything about Osric. He's an outsider in the village, mainly because of his one red eye. The fact that he can't remember anything about where he comes from or what had happened to him, sets him apart from the small community he lives in, and he is treated a bit disdainfully.

As he's taken by Sigurd and his crew he realises it's a case of sink or swim and slowly but surely, he comes to be accepted, firstly by Sigurd, then other members of the crew. He's given his new name and a new life opens before him. The action is thrilling and wild and practically non-stop. And I'm also pleased to say that the characterisation is rich, as is the world-building.

Raven: Blood Eye is a really neat (if bloody) package that ticks all the right boxes when it comes to what epic historical fiction is all about, and then some. I've noticed some people liken it to other writers such as Bernard Cornwell, Tim Severin and others and honestly, it's as good as that and the even better thing: there is more to come.

Giles Kristian, please, don't stop writing! Raven: Blood Eye and Raven: Sons of Thunder can be found online as well as other good high street bookshops. And this is Giles' website.

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