Winter’s Fire is almost certainly my favourite Giles Kristian book so far, and that’s no mean feat, since I generally find the second book in a series to be the poorer cousin. Mind you, this might be the second book in Sigurd’s rise, but realistically it’s the fifth novel he’s written in the ongoing Sigurd and Raven series. Is it good? Let’s just say I spent this afternoon making Viking-based jokes and comments around Ripon and singing ‘Fimbrulvinter, fimbrulvinter’ to the tune of Spongebob Squarepants. Oddly, nobody asked me why, so I never got the chance to explain that Winter’s Fire is released today.
I really enjoyed God of Vengeance last year, especially following the somewhat dark and heavy Brothers’ Fury, and was more than pleased to be back in Kristian’s vision of the Viking world. And Winter’s Fire continues that tale perfectly. But there are subtle differences. Because this is not the disastrous cause of Sigurd’s vengeance, but part of his journey, there is less need for doom-laden anguish in this book and more room for humour. In that respect it reminds me more of the original Raven books than its immediate predecessor. There is more humour and adventurous yarn-weaving here than in the previous book, and that is very welcome to me. Historical fiction takes itself rather too seriously at times, and it is nice to be able to laugh at a fart gag from time to time. After all, we’re all mentally 12 when you come down to it.
Kristian’s skill as a storyteller and constructor of plots is notable with this book for one reason in particular to me. Like The Empire Strikes Back (yes, I return to my usual trilogy comparison) Winter’s Fire does not tell a focused story which ties up tight at the end. It roves as a plot, with tendrils reaching out in different areas, introducing new elements and bringing old ones back. Indeed, from part way through the book, we are given an entirely new thread to follow as Sigurd’s sister’s own tale becomes as important as a central theme as his. And the story kind of ends (minor spoiler I guess) on something of a cliffhanger, in the old fashioned weekly adventure serial style. How will the hero get out of this? And yet, despite the apparent disparate nature of the plot, it just works. It reads beautifully, it feels like a tale that grows, then focuses, then comes to a satisfactory conclusion. Indeed, as I said, it is, I think, my fave of his works thus far.
The story follows Sigurd and his motley crew as they prepare for the backlash of his killing of Jarl Randver in the previous book. He knows King Gorm will come for him, or send men to do so. And with his Odin Favour he manages to slip the net, of course, and set off on a new epic. But what he doesn’t know is that a new villain has promised the treacherous king that he will take Sigurd’s life. Thus begins a series of seemingly random events that will send Sigurd into the service of a King and a Jarl he’s never heard of and his sister Runa into the arms of a religious sisterhood the like of which we would love to see armed to the teeth and paying a visit to ISIS. Threads you could almost forget from early in the book will come into play near the end.
Moreover, as well as the usual crew, who we know and love from other books, there are several new and exciting characters brought forth in this book. The villain, who you will soon identify, is a true, chilling, evil bastard. He is not the common or garden villain that Randver was. This fellow is a truly unpleasant piece of work. You’ll love him. You’ll hate him. You’ll love to hate him. And the former champion of King Gorm? Well, I’ll let you discover that on your own. And the seidr-wife? Well she is just too cool.
I could go on for hours. The fact is that this book will almost certainly be in my year’s top 10 in December. It’s a work of the skald’s art. It came out today. That means you can have it on your e-reader or in the mail to you within the minute if you just open a new tab. Do it. Just go do it. It’s a win in every way. Kristian has been in the top tier of historical and adventure writers for years, but he’s just upped his game again.