Varangian: Stuart Yates
Can you see the bodies strewn and smell the stench of death that permeates like a rancid perfume in the air? Death, carnage, violence and so many killed in order to prove their own strength and take over the throne or Rome. As we learn more about those killed, those that sought revenge we never see the orchestra leader that created the silent death music and conducted the soldiers in such precision that those that were victims never heard their footsteps or saw their blazing swords. The setting is 10th century Constantinople, the time period highly volatile and the two sides distinctly different. Harald Sigurdsson, called Hardrada is in a cell with several other men hoping to find a way to freedom. Thinking that the Empress Zoe, his lover, would come in his cell would not happen. Within the walls of the palace there is treachery, deceit, lies and hate as so many seek out power, influence and will do anything including debase themselves to get it. When we finally meet the much coveted and loved by many men, Empress Zoe, we hear her thoughts as she speaks to her maid, Leoni never realizing that those close to her would be her downfall. Leoni, young, beautiful, thinking she is so smart in many ways, beguiling to men and finding her way into many beds, allows herself to become the mistress to a powerful general and then a concubine or lover to the present Emperor whose goal is to remove Zoe, who took him in when married to his uncle, adopted him and finds himself in power. But, the present Emperor Michal V, is more than just boastful of his prowess in bed and manipulations of others as he took is being managed you might say by a eunuch whose principles are questionable, whose ability to take him to task quite cunning but whose end will surprise you.
Throughout the beginning of the novel we learn about the wars that took place, the battles between the many military factions working for and against the establishment of New Rome/Constantinople. When the story opens we learn about the demise of many Varangian, those that served in the elite unit of the Byzantine Army. These men guarded the Emperor. But, one man stands out Harald Hardrada whose loyalty is to the Empress but whose quest will force him to do more than just choose sides and loyalty. The Patriarch of the Royalty, Alexis, gets away when warned by Zoe, whose life is endanger when she becomes dispensable to the Emperor, a thorn in his side as he seeks to rule on his own at any cost. Releasing Harald from prison, threatening to kill Zoe, he sends him to bring back the Patriarch for him to stand in support of him during his coronation. But, Michael is deranged, delusional and really sick and thirsty for control power and uses Harald as his messenger and toys with his love for Zoe in order to get what he wants.
As Harald embarks on his journey, others are sent to find him and take his life as Michal changes course, imprisons the one man loyal to him, sends Zoe away to a nunnery and devises a plot so sick and diabolical it will take more than just the return of the Alexius, Patriarch of the great city of Constantinople, his support and Harald to get what he wants.
There are many who Zoe trusts and one is Scythian Guard who becomes her lover. When found out he is sent away to seek Harald and told to kill him. Along with a young soldier named Andreas he hopes to succeed but along the way they encounter more than one obstacle, a young girl that appears to be dangerous, taken with Andreas, yet a pawn this wild band that she belongs it and that threatened her if she does not stay her course, do their bidding and follow the path they have outlined for her.
As Michael’s plans come into play, the games begin but there are those appearing close to him that have another goal in mind. Manipulating not only her lover the general, Leoni, manages to help General Maniakes put his own spin on how he wants things to go, arrange for Constantine the brother of the eunuch, Orphano, to return and restore his power, and hopefully be successful in his plans to get Zoe back on the throne. Within each plan there are many subplots and plans and those that appear to be loyal just might have other agendas in mind as we hear the voice of one young man named Nikolias working with the general but whose quest for power too might lead him in another direction. Battle scenes that come next, descriptions quite graphic, the Alexius soon to return and the entire cast just might wind up in the same place. But, can Harald bring Zoe back on the throne, convince the Patriarch to return to the city, and lead the Varangians to victory? But, what about Crethus, whose loyal to Zoe, a messenger for the Empire and now faced with having to kill Hardrada? The plot gets exciting when his two friends create a diversion, finally escape and then confronts Crethus with a startling truth and two men just might be at a standstill.
When the ending comes near just who survives, who will rule and where everyone winds up you just won’t believe. Author Stuart Yates takes us deep inside the mind of a man so delusional he actually believes his own power. When the people speak out and their wishes are known, violence breaks out and the sides and swords are drawn.
As Hardrada and Ranulph work side by side to take back what is theirs, find a way to destroy the Scythian Guard, deal with Crethus and hopefully rid themselves of Andreas, the surprise twists, turns and subtle nuances that the author creates will keep you guessing, wondering and joining in the fight, drawing your own sword, deciding which side you are on and the final battle is won. Just who will remain standing and whose plan worked? Will Harald get back what he lost? Will he remain as the head of the Varangian or will he and his two friends finally be free? What about the veiled threat made by someone at the end? The answers to these and many other questions will come when our brilliant author brings us the sequel titled: King of the Norse. Volume II. To get a sneak peak you are going to have to read this great fast paced novel first to get look at the first chapter of the next book. Can you see the bodies strewn? Can you smell the threat of death? Can you see the carnage? Whose bodies? Whose deaths? Read this outstanding novel to find out and close your eyes and picture the scenes. Characters that are quite colorful, devious, well defined, clearly described and a plot that is easy to follow and subplots that will draw you in even more. This is one novel you want to read.
Fran Lewis: Reviewer