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VARANGER (Tom Doherty Associates Books) Paperback – 28 Sep 2010

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Product details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Forge Trade; Reprint edition (28 Sept. 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0765312336
  • ISBN-13: 978-0765312334
  • Product Dimensions: 14 x 1.7 x 21.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 4,345,543 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Hardcover
Part of a series begun by Cecelia Holland a while back, this one takes the sons of her earlier hero Corban Loosestrife on a journey east to the country of rivers that would one day become Russia. Apparently working from the tales preserved in the Russian Primary Chronicle and some of the old Icelandic sagas (such as Olaf Tryggvesson's Saga), Ms. Holland provides a finely detailed and convincing picture of what the Rus' (progenitors of the Russians) were like. The record suggests they were an amalgam people, consisting of elements of various Slavic tribal groups onto which Scandinavian adventurers grafted themselves from fairly early times. The Russian Primary Chronicle records the arrival of an apparent viking prince (vikings are called Varangians in the Chronicle -- a term of uncertain derivation) who takes over the rule of a trading town in the north of today's Russia which the Varangians called Holmgard (Island Keep or Fortress) and which came to be known to the Rus' as Novgarod (new keep) although it's not clear which name predated.

The Varangian leader, called Rurik in the Chronicle (and sometimes associated with a Danish Viking of the period, Hroerekr) stayed for only a brief time, though long enough to establish the beginnings of a dynasty and make the first tentative efforts to control all the river towns then growing up along the trade route to Constantinople. Holland's tale takes her two heroes, Raef Corbansson and Conn Corbansson (actually cousins rather than brothers) into the swampy country of Novgarod for a firsthand look at what a Varangian trader's life must have been like.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 8 reviews
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
exhilarating historical thriller 10 April 2008
By Harriet Klausner - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Late in the tenth century, cousins Conn and Raef Corbansson know they are fortunate to be alive as their side lost the battle of Hjorunga Bay. They escape by a fur trading ship, but end up frozen in place in Novgorod. The city ruler Lord Dobryana aware of the Corbansson exploits offers the "free warriors" a chance to escape the icy winter by joining the crusade to raid the Byzantine Empire northern port city of Chersonese on the Greek Sea.

Getting there takes forever and arriving there proves difficult as Chersonese is not an easy city to take. Worse Conn and Raef soon realize their new comrades in arms are ruthless backstabbers who live for treachery.

The superb fourth Dark Ages Viking saga (see THE SERPENT DREAMER, THE SOUL THIEF and THE WITCHES' KITCHEN) is an exhilarating historical thriller that continues the adventures of the second generation. The locale, for the most part, is different than the three previous novels; as such it adds freshness with the Vikings raiding the Byzantine Empire. The story line is fast-paced and filled with plenty of action, but it is the vivid window into the era that makes Varanger a fabulous insightful tale.

Harriet Klausner
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
From a frozen winter in Russia, to the Black Sea shore of northern Byzantium. 14 May 2010
By Edward Alexander Gerster - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
A logical progression from her Viking novels The Serpent Dreamer (Tom Doherty Associates Book), The Soul Thief, and The Witches' Kitchen, this novel follows the adventures of cousins Conn and Raef Corbansson from the ice and snow of winter in Novgorod, to the politics of Volodymyr (Vladimir the Great) in Kiev and down into the northern reaches of the Byzantine Empire. It is an important time in the development of Kievan Rus, the medieval state which existed from approximately 880 to the middle of the 13th century, the Mongol invasion of 1240.

Conn and Raef Corbansson have sailed to Novgorod on a fur trading expedition, where they over-winter and eventually join forces with the local leader Dobrynya on a journey south along the the Dnieper trade route from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. Stopping over in Kiev, and joining forces with Volodymyr (Vladimir the Great), and the raiding party continues south to the Byzantine city of Chersonese (Cherson) on the Black Sea. High adventure, intrigue and betrayal ensue and this fictionalized adventure does add much to think about in how Christianity first came to Kievan Rus, and thus to the Russian Empire.

Vivid, passionate, and brutal - this novel is told from multiple viewpoints, which is frequently annoying, but gives you the full flavor of all the characters involved. The adventure continues in The High City, which is set in Constantinople and further examines the Byzantine Empire.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Vikings Go East 14 Feb. 2011
By Stuart W. Mirsky - Published on Amazon.com
Verified Purchase
Part of a series begun by Cecelia Holland a while back, this one takes the sons of her earlier hero Corban Loosestrife on a journey east to the country of rivers that would one day become Russia. Apparently working from the tales preserved in the Russian Primary Chronicle and some of the old Icelandic sagas (such as Olaf Tryggvesson's Saga), Ms. Holland provides a finely detailed and convincing picture of what the Rus' (progenitors of the Russians) were like. The record suggests they were an amalgam people, consisting of elements of various Slavic tribal groups onto which Scandinavian adventurers grafted themselves from fairly early times. The Russian Primary Chronicle records the arrival of an apparent viking prince (vikings are called Varangians in the Chronicle -- a term of uncertain derivation) who takes over the rule of a trading town in the north of today's Russia which the Varangians called Holmgard (Island Keep or Fortress) and which came to be known to the Rus' as Novgarod (new keep) although it's not clear which name predated.

The Varangian leader, called Rurik in the Chronicle (and sometimes associated with a Danish Viking of the period, Hroerekr) stayed for only a brief time, though long enough to establish the beginnings of a dynasty and make the first tentative efforts to control all the river towns then growing up along the trade route to Constantinople. Holland's tale takes her two heroes, Raef Corbansson and Conn Corbansson (actually cousins rather than brothers) into the swampy country of Novgarod for a firsthand look at what a Varangian trader's life must have been like. Raef, the one with a touch of magic about him, and his heroically blunt and forceful cousin Conn get stuck in the trading town after washing up on its shores in the crew of a trader who plans to winter there. With no way out the two cousins hunker down to winter there, too. But they soon make enemies of another Varangian and his crew while impressing the local ruler, the historical Dobrynya who was uncle to Vladimir the First of Kiev in the south. Vladimir, the fourth generation of Rurik's kin and the fifth kniaz or prince of Kiev in the Rurikid line, has only recently grabbed the high seat from his predecessor and brother Yaropolk and Uncle Dobrynya is keen on recruiting Varangians to aid the new Kievan ruler to establish himself.

So Raef and Conn sign up (there really's no other way out for them as they've lost all in the west in the previous book) and head upriver through treacherous terrain in some questionable company. After a bit of portage to move their clumsy river boats from one river to another, they head down the Dneiper to Kiev and Vladimir. The first part of the book seems a bit aimless but that is probably true to the kind of time they would have had to put in over a fierce northern Russian winter at Novgarod and Holland does this remarkably well, slowly building up the characterizations and back story sufficiently to carry the rest of the book while painting the frozen swamp and river country around Novgarod in brilliant colors.

Once in Kiev the story picks up its pace because Vladimir (who will one day be hailed in Russian history as Vladimir the Saint) is beset by treachery and the arrival of the small company of "Varangers" led by Conn and Raef povides the still young prince the chance to lock in his control of Kiev and, by dint of that, all of Rus' as far as Novgarod in the north. But Conn and Raef are, typically for vikings, not especially deepminded and are just looking for a chance to win some gold by force of arms. Vladimir, at Dobrynya's urging, has conceived a plan to extort a political alliance from the Greeks in Constantinople if he can get their attention -- which is where Raef and Conn come in. Complications ensue when Conn finds himself enthralled by a Khazar princess in Vladimir's harem (for the record, Holland calls him Volodymir and who is to say her spelling isn't the right one?) and Raef finds himself keeping house with a Hunnish woman he has rescued from Conn's clumsy efforts at rape. The Rus' around Volodymir are a mixed group (second and third generation Varangians, mixed bloods and Slavic tribesmen -- just as the historic records suggest) and they don't all take to the small gang of northerners following the two cousins.

Making use of Volodymir's father's abandoned dragon ships, the northerners lead Volodymir, Uncle Dobrynya and their henchman, the Slavic captain, Pavo, on an expedition against the Greek trading outpost town of Chersonese on the northern coast of the Black Sea. With only four dragon ships they seem rather woefully undermanned for taking even this outpost town, given Holland's description, but they pull it off convincingly, leading to Volodymir's historic conversion to Christianity in exchange for recognition and alliance with the Greeks. The outcome, however, doesn't sit well with our heroes who have to decide how to deal with the kniaz' machinations, leading to the tale's denouement.

On balance, though slowgoing at first, the book rewards with its vivid picture of Varangian times in the east and the fast paced battle for Chersonese. On the negative side, I frequently found myself confused by the cousins as Raef and Conn tended to meld in the mind. Though endowed with distinctly different personalities (Raef's the sensitive, thinking one while Conn's the guy with the chip on his shoulder, albeit not a bad sort when you get to know him), and though they are different in appearance (Raef is thin and light haired while Conn is more muscular and dark), it's hard to tell them apart in the midst of the action. And if the fight for the Greek city was nicely done, the size and scope of the Rus' force just seemed too insignificant to pull it off. And, alas, the ending seemed rushed with too much forced into it. While Holland admirably allows some of her most interesting characters to bite the dust (as in real life), the final resolution of the story disappoints, perhaps because of that choice.

After reading the first in the series I had decided not to read anymore but was drawn to Varanger because it promised to deliver a tale touching on the eastern vikings who reached their zenith in the time of Grand Prince Vladimir of Kiev. On that score Holland delivers a solid tale, effectively researched. But in terms of characters and plotline, I was left a little cold. My favorite Holland viking tale is still Two Ravens which has been out of print, apparently, for some years now.

Stuart W. Mirsky
Author of The King of Vinland's Saga
Relatively weak offering from a first-rate historical novelist 27 Dec. 2011
By Michael K. Smith - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Holland, who is almost exactly my age, has been writing historical fiction since college, and I've been an avid reader of her work since the beginning. She's covered the whole length and breadth of history and geography in that time. Lately, she's been doing a series about early medieval Norse/Irish culture featuring settlers in Vinland and the wars of Sven Forkbeard and the introduction of Scandinavian fighting men into 10th century Constantinople. The next-to-last of the saga (the fifth novel in a series of six -- so far, but that's probably all) is _The High City,_ which features the formation of the Varangian Guard. This one comes immediately before it. (Yes, I seem to be re-reading them in reverse order.) Conn Corbansson and his cousin, Raef, who are closer than twins, have survived the mythic battle at Hjorunga Bay and are presently hanging around the little town of Novgorod, having crewed that far with Thorfinn, a Norse fur trader. The Rus of Novgorod and Kiev are the descendants of Rurik and his followers, who arrived almost a century earlier and took over (and who will become the founders of the aristocracy of Russia for the next thousand years), and things are pretty tense between them and those Northmen who showed up later. Volodymyr (Vladimir, that is), who is the Prince of the whole affair, has ambitions to have his power and rank recognized by the Emperors of Byzantium by forcing them to provide him with a Greek princess as a bride, and he figures he can do that by capturing one of the cities on the Black Sea and making a trade. And so off he goes down the Dnieper with a half-dozen somewhat antiquated dragon ships and with the two cousins being dragged along through the oath of service they had given the Prince's uncle. Of course, none of them really have any idea of the scale of the Byzantine Empire nor just how small fry the Rus are in the scheme of things. Raef, who is god-touched and knows things he logically shouldn't, has a bad feeling about the expedition, and he's right. Volodymyr will get what he wants, more or less, but everyone else will suffer for it. The Rus will be forcibly Christianized, Conn and Raef will both lose the women to whom they've become attached, and one of them will lose a good deal more than that.

Although there are some very good scenes along the way, the plot-line as a whole seems somewhat less controlled than in most of Holland's books. Holland doesn't do break-neck adventure, preferring a more thoughtful and observant pace. In nearly all her books, she shows you what's happening from the viewpoint of a minor character standing in the background. Someone whose presence may be crucial but whose name won't make it into the history books. And the characters are, in fact, very nicely developed. But the pace actually seems to plod in places.

And I have to question one point, especially: The journey down the river from Novgorod to Kiev seems to take them a week or two, which is probably about right -- but the rest of the trip, from there to the river's mouth near the Crimea, doesn't seem much longer. And that's some 1,300 miles. That's a couple seasons' travel time, even for the ship-savvy Norse, especially on a constricted waterway. Well, I urge you to start at the beginning of the story, with _The Soul Thief,_ and enjoy the whole epic, as written by someone who knows that "viking" is just a job and not a nationality.
From Rus to Byzantium 13 Oct. 2011
By Gina - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Adapted from my review at Goodreads:

This is my favorite of the Soul Thief series. It follows Raef and Conn Corbansson through Rus (old Russia, a melting pot of Vikings, Slavs, Huns, Arabs, etc.) and south towards the Black Sea. It's mostly an adventure and warring tale, but still has a bit of romance and heart, especially at the end. It does a good job of capturing the Viking spirit and of portraying the cultural sea change that happened as Russia embraced Byzantinism. It also explores what it might be like for a Norseman to have encountered classical culture and the Mediterranean, imperial mindset. It serves as a bridge to The High City, which takes place in Byzantium itself.

Raef is my favorite character of the series, and he shines here. Holland does some of the best writing about sailing and sea battles that I've read, and that is plentiful here, too. As always, some historical liberties are taken, but it's in service of spinning a good tale.
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