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Varanger    by Cecelia Holland order for
by Cecelia Holland
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Forge, 2008 (2008)

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Cecelia Holland's Varanger is the fourth - following The Soul Thief, The Witches' Kitchen and The Serpent Dreamer - in a planned 10th century quintet that has taken readers from Ireland to England, Denmark, across the Atlantic to Vinland, and back again. The previous book, The Serpent Dreamer, focused on Corban Loosestrife's life in what is now America. Varanger takes us back to Europe where he had left his son Conn and nephew Raef (a child born of rape), who both came of age in The Witches' Kitchen and have grown as close as brothers.

Of the two, Conn is a charismatic leader of men, though at times impulsive. He loves to fight. Raef has his back and has inherited magics that give him foresight and an uncanny ability to find his way across water. As the story opens, they winter in frozen Holmgard (under the rule of Rus Dobrynya) and fight for Thorfinn Hrolfsson against his enemy, Magnus Redbeard. Conn makes a lifelong enemy of Pavo, Sclava commander of the city guard. Raef is fascinated by a strange gold coin, 'all wreathed in strange runes', keeps it as a talisman, and feels 'driven like an ember in the wind; he had no idea what he was looking for but the need to find it would not let him rest.' He befriends a traveler from Baghdad, Rashid al-Samudi, and argues philosophy, science and religion with him.

After they show their mettle in action against Magnus, Dobrynya hires Conn and Raef to pull together a group of other Varanger and sail six dragonships as part of an expedition Dobrynya's nephew, Knyaz Volodymyr, is leading from Kiev against the walled city of Chersonese, 'the heart of the Greek sea.' The taking of the city - at which the cousins suceed despite the bad leadership of their commanders - is an exciting saga all by itself. And the city they have conquered - its comforts, roots in the past, and endurance - is a revelation to Raef in particular, who decides that this is something he wants to build for himself, 'back where we belong' instead of always 'fighting other people's fights'.

As they journey, the cousins are involved in both casual and more intense relationships with women, and by the end, one must make a hard choice between a new love and a man beloved as a brother. Varanger is another excellent episode in Holland's 10th century quintet that ranges all over the world, bringing the era and its different cultures to life for the reader. Two strong themes run through Varanger - put not your trust in princes, and we all have our place if only we can recognize it. I can't wait for the final novel in this extraordinary series.

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