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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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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