by Cecelia Holland

Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach

Varanger by Cecelia Holland Set in the tenth-century world of the Vikings, Varanger is part of a series, but can easily be read as a standalone. The first three novels centered on the exploits of Corban Loosestrife. Varanger shifts to the next generation: Corban's son Conn and nephew Raef, particularly the thoughtful, psychically gifted Raef. When the two set off with a war party in dragon ships, Raef can feel the water's direction, and "at the very edge of that knowledge he was beginning to sense something else, a fiery city, smoke, and blood."

The novel opens, though, with the cousins preparing to hunker down for the winter in Holmgard, a frozen crossroads in what is now northwestern Russia. "Within the crescent of the earthworks, most of the buildings were sunk down into the ground, the ridgelines of their roofs coated with a filthy glaze of old snow.... The hazy sky was colorless as iron, the sun used up burning a hole through the middle, so it gave no warmth and little light. Conn felt the coming of the winter like a roof shutting down over him; in a few days getting out of here at all would be hard." Other travelers than the cousins are in Holmgard waiting out the winter or pursuing their own purposes. Its pagan ruler, Dobrynya, contemplating the possible benefits of a religious conversion, is hosting a Muslim guest from Constantinople; Christianity is another alternative.

Conn and Raef become targets for Dobrynya's violent enforcer, who seems determined to pick a fight with them. As the weather warms and the ice thins, they must decide where to go next and with whom. Dobrynya offers a tempting proposal, but it would mean fighting alongside a man who wants them dead. Varanger takes its time reaching the battle story at its heart and a climax in which Raef and Conn learn hard truths about politics and the expendability of fighting men. Meanwhile, the setting and characters are depicted with vivid authenticity. (2008; 303 pages)

More about Varanger at Powell's Books or

Varanger appears on the list of The 45 Best Historical Novels Set in the Viking Age

Other novels set in icy climes:

The Voyage of the Short Serpent by Bernar Du Boucheron (2008), a gory, darkly humorous novel about a Norwegian bishop who voyages to Greenland with the goal of reclaiming the Viking settlement there, which has lapsed into paganism, for Christianity. More info

The Frozen Thames by Helen Humphreys (2007), a collection of short stories set in various times when the River Thames froze solid, from the Middle Ages into the nineteenth century. See review or more info at Powell's Books

The Winter Wolf by Richard Parry (1996), about Wyatt Earp's quest to strike it rich in the Alaska Gold Rush. More info

Nonfiction about medieval Russia:

Ibn Fadlan's Journey to Russia by Ahmad Ibn Fadlan (10th century; this edition 2005), a tenth-century Arabic traveler's account of life among the Viking Rus. More info

Medieval Russia, 980-1584 by Janet Martin (1996). More info

Kievan Russia by George Vernadsky (1948). More info


Rus' Khaganate at Wikipedia

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