Friday, 14 March 2014

Rob Bayliss reviews Varangian by Stuart Yates

Please check below for giveaway information!

Byzantine: the very word can now mean devious and convoluted, especially with regard to politics, and so it is in Stuart G. Yates’ Varangian. Mirroring the intrigue and conflicting interests and loyalties of the Imperial court, the novel tells its tale from the different points of view of multiple characters but centres on the legendary figure of Harald Sigurdsson, later to be known as Hardrada, the hard ruler. Harald was a giant of the age, both physically and by reputation. He is well known in English history as the King of Norway contesting the English throne with Harold II and Duke William in 1066 (indeed the novel opens with the bloody aftermath of the Battle of Fulford) but he had already accumulated wealth, both in gold and saga-sung fame, some twenty years earlier in the famed Miklagard, the Great City, Constantinople.

The novel is loosely based on the short five-month reign of Emperor Michael V; at that time Harald was commander of the Emperor’s famed Varangian Guard. Harald had seen action on nearly all the frontiers of the Empire during his career in the Varangians, fighting Saracens, Normans, Bulgars and Arabs.

As the book opens however, Harald is down on his luck. He has inadvertently become embroiled in the coup of Michael V over the popular Empress Zoe, the stepmother of Michael and occasional lover of Harald. The Commander of the Varangians finds himself in a cell with two comrades, all that is left of his retinue in Byzantium. The rest of his followers have been cruelly slain by Scythian mercenaries of Michael’s, whilst the bulk of the Varangian Guard are stationed on the Northern frontier.

Michael has been aided in his coup by the machinations of the shrewd politician, John Orphano, the eunuch brother of Zoe’s dead husband, Michael IV, and by General George Manaikes. The general has inside information on Zoe’s thoughts as he is the lover of one of her handmaidens, the sexually alluring Leoni. Each member of the triumvirate has their own agenda, but all too soon Orphano and Maniakes realise that they have seriously underestimated Michael; he is not willing to share power or be their puppet. Orphano and Maniakes come up with a plan to bring him to heel.

To that end Orphano decides to use the captive Harald. Orphano has Harald boxed in a corner; he threatens to kill both Zoe and Harald’s two companions, while also seizing the Varangian commander’s hoarded treasure. Harald is sent north with Andreas, a young Byzantine officer, to bring back Zoe’s ally, Alexius, the patriarch of Constantinople, and lead the remaining Varangians back to the capital. The patriarch fled the coup to find safety with Harald’s Varangians on the frontier. Only the patriarch can legitimise, or otherwise, Michael’s accession, whilst the Varangians can counter the power of the Scythians. Meanwhile Maniakes ruthlessly uses his lover Leoni to exploit the emperor’s sexual depravity and paranoia, both gaining information and planting ideas in Michael’s mind. With Harald gone, Zoe, fearful and lonely, takes Crethus, the commander of the Scythians, as her lover.

No sooner has Harald and Andreas left Constantinople when Michael tells Orphano that he plans to rid himself of Zoe and send her to a nunnery. Orphano quickly alters his plan and sends Crethus in pursuit of Harald to kill the Norseman, enabling Andreas to bring back Alexius alone and using Maniake’s own forces to rescue Zoe and crush Michael’s support. However nothing goes to plan and Orphano has underestimated Michael yet again.

Duplicity, sexual intrigue and treachery: this book drips with it. Honour is a rare commodity in the Byzantine court; only Harald and Andreas emerge as honourable men but their mutual respect is destroyed by the deceitful Crethus. The Empire faces threats both from within and without. Plot is stacked upon plot and subject to change at a moment's notice as each faction jostles for power and influence, whilst in the background, the fickle mood of the mob is an ever-present threat to any would-be emperors or kingmaker.

Be warned, some of the excesses of old Rome have transferred to this new Rome, Constantinople, and the author pulls no punches. I found there were few characters in this book that I could actively warm to, with the exception of Harald and Andreas. However I did pity Leoni, especially when she understands how Maniakes has used her and comes to recognise the immoral creature she has allowed herself to be moulded into.

Varangian is a page turner of a novel; the chapters are quite short but full of brutal and bloody action relentlessly drawing you deeper into the story. The tale is presented from the point of view of different characters; indeed the story demands it, as while the main protagonist is outside the city walls, crucial events unfold within. I found myself willing Harald and Andreas to talk to each other without their swords at each other’s throats, but their comradeship becomes irretrievably broken down, Andreas swearing vengeance upon Harald despite the latter saving the former’s life. Their paths will cross again, however, many miles and years away from Byzantium and Harald will have used his regained wealth to good effect in the securing of the Norwegian throne and further conquests…

The Varangian is available as a paperback and on Rebel ePublishers as an ebook

This review was written by Rob Bayliss. Rob is currently working on his Flint and Steel, Fire and Shadow fantasy series. If you would like Rob or any of The Review Group team to review your book, please check out the submissions tab above.

Rob has a paperback copy of Stuart Yates's Varangian to give away to one lucky winner! Simply comment below to enter; Facebook users may also comment at our blog page thread for this review.


  1. Wonderful review. Sounds like a great read.

  2. A comprehensive and intriguing review. A novel that will be finding its way onto my TBR list.

  3. this sounds like a book that I'd like to read. Thank you Rob

  4. Oh this is definitely my sort of novel especially as Harald's wife the Rus Elizabeta is a character in my current novel. I think this a stunning review of a potentially fabulous book so put my name in your helmet please.

  5. Its a cracking read. I love all things Byzantine. Now I know I'm a tad odd at times, but it's like the burning of the Library at Alexandria or the death of Harold II; the fall of Constantinople is one of those things I mourn a little everyday!

  6. Sounds utterly intriguing - please enter my name in the draw!

  7. Sounds totally engrossing.. please enter me in the draw