[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]
Depending on the period being portrayed, historical fiction novels are often too graphic and too depressing for me to enjoy. The Viking era is a popular one for authors, and, until Blood Eye, I have always been unable to get into books set in that period. The difference is that Giles Kristian seems to understand that a story can be more about the characters and less about the fighting without losing the flavor of the era.
Osric is a teenage orphan living in a small English village that is attacked by Norse raiders. The exact how of Osric’s orphanage is something of a mystery, and he has no memories from before he was found by the village and apprenticed to the local carpenter, Eahlstan. For Osric life is not very pleasant for two reasons: first, he is not a native of the town; and second, his left eye is blood red, which the villagers and their local priest consider a mark of malevolence. Osric is still a good young man and his hard work with the carpenter has prepared him physically for the adventure that he is pulled into.
When Osric’s village first encounters the Norse raiders, there is an attempt at peaceful trade; the villagers have food and other things the Norse want. For some reason, Osric can understand and speak the Norse language, which further ostracizes him from the other villagers but draws the interest of the Norse traders. In what is to become a recurring theme in the novel, the local priest attempts to poison the Norse leader, Sigurd, because of his religious conviction that the heathen Norse are evil. The bloody slaughter that ensues leaves the village in ruins and Osric and Eahlstan as prisoners of the Norse as they head to sea.
There are several interesting themes throughout the book. The first is loyalty and how it can grow and flourish. Osric, eventually renamed Raven, learns that loyalty once given can be its own reward. The conflict that he feels between the two or so years of living amongst the Christian English and his new life amongst the Norse is interesting. For an impressionable young man, it’s very easy to see how this could be a formative experience as he decides who he will be. The rough camaraderie and shared sense of purpose that the Norse embody are very well depicted, even when their religious observances are both graphically violent and at times cruel. The second theme is about personal honor, the idea that risking one’s life for a friend and ally is the right thing to do even when the odds of success are slim. These are the sorts of ideals that always capture my imagination and inspire my interest in a story.
Blood Eye is a rough, fast adventure. Kristian balances violent combat with a story that captures more than just the grisly conditions of the period. I was glad to find a new series set in this period that didn’t turn me off by overemphasizing gloom and darkness. Raven or Osric’s world is full of harsh conditions and bad people, but there are admirable men and women along the way who make the story worth following and who show us that even in bleak times there are still bright sparks.