The Golden Horn by Poul Anderson

The Golden Horn Poul Anderson (1926-2001) was an American author of fantasy and science fiction, but he also wrote a trilogy of historical novels, known as The Last Viking, which tells the story of Harald Hardrada, who was King of Norway from 1046 to 1066. I have read about Harald before, but only as a minor character or in relation to the Norman Conquest of 1066 and the role he played in trying to claim the throne of England, so I was looking forward to reading The Golden Horn and learning more about his life.

Harald Sigurdharson (the name Hardrada or Hardrede, meaning “hard ruler”, will follow later) is the younger half-brother of Olaf II of Norway. Harald is only fifteen years old when he fights alongside Olaf at the Battle of Stiklastadh (Stiklestad) in an attempt to restore his brother to the Norwegian throne, which has been lost to King Canute of Denmark. Olaf is killed during the battle, his forces are defeated and Harald manages to escape. The Golden Horn, the first book in the trilogy, follows Harald throughout his time in exile as he waits for his chance to come home to Norway and reclaim the throne.

After recovering from being badly wounded at Stiklastadh, Harald flees to Russia with the help of Rognvald Brusason of Orkney. In Kiev, he meets the Grand Prince Yaroslav who makes him a captain in his army. Later, Harald continues south to Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire, where he becomes commander of the Varangian Guard. The next few years are spent on various military campaigns in and around Constantinople and the Mediterranean. During this time Harald amasses great wealth, makes a name for himself as a warrior, and enters into marriage with Princess Ellisif (Elisaveta) of Kiev.

The Golden Horn was not quite what I was expecting: not being very familiar with Harald’s story, I hadn’t realised so much of the novel would be set in Constantinople rather than Scandinavia (although the title should have been a clue; the golden horn was the name of the horn-shaped harbour of Constantinople). I didn’t mind, though, as I loved this setting and enjoyed following the intrigue surrounding the Byzantine Empress Zoe Porphyrogenita, her husband Michael IV, and her sister Theodora. Harald is back in Norway by the end of the novel, so I imagine the next two books in the trilogy will be the ‘Viking’ stories I had expected.

What I liked less were the battle scenes and the focus on Harald’s military career with the Varangian Guard, which seemed to come at the expense of character development and the emotional connections which are so important to me in fiction. I never felt that I got to dig beneath the surface and really get to know Harald – or any of the other characters in the book – and that was disappointing. Still, it was good to have the chance to learn a little bit about Harald’s life, even if I sometimes felt overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of historical facts, which I felt could have been woven more smoothly into the fabric of the story.

The Golden Horn is followed by The Road of the Sea Horse and The Sign of the Raven. All three novels were originally published in 1980. I don’t think I’ll be reading the other two as this book just wasn’t really for me, but I would have no hesitation in recommending the trilogy to readers who are interested in this period and who look for different things in historical fiction than I do.

Thanks to Open Road Integrated Media for providing a review copy via NetGalley.

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8 thoughts on “The Golden Horn by Poul Anderson”

  1. Not long ago I tried to read A Midsummer Tempest by Poul Anderson — it sounded so interesting, a historical fantasy written in Shakesperean language and taking Shakespeare’s plays as fact. But it was too muddled and impenetrable for me, and as you say about this one, I couldn’t get to care about the characters. So I DNF. I’m thinking to try something else by Anderson but maybe not this one.

  2. I am intrigued as to why an American fantasy writer would find this subject interesting. And was there really a woman called Zoë Porphyrogenita? She sounds like someone out of a late night sit-com. I don’t think this would be for me either.

    1. I was about to explain the meaning of Porphyrogenita but I see Elaine below has beaten me to it. I admit I hadn’t heard of Empress Zoe either until I read this book, but she seems to have led a fascinating life!

  3. Yes there was such a woman and Empress. The surname means ‘born to the [imnperial] purple’.

    I’ve gathered that Anderson was interested in his family background – his parents were Danish and he lived there for a while. He also liked history and founded the SCA.
    Several of his fantasies use Scandavian settings, characters, history. Ogier the Dane, being one, and I slogged through his hrolf kraki’s saga back when. I was very young and couldn’t tell you now why I found it a slog, but that’s how I remember it. i prefered his light stuff like Three Hearts & Three Lions featuring Ogier. His THE BROKEN SWORD which I read in my teens shortly after the LOTR, when I was looking for more like that, was a shock in grimness.

    i do think, looking back on what of his work I’ve read, that he isn’t a strong character writer. I have kept MIDSUMMER TEMPEST, but not for the characters so much as some scenes in it have great power for me – like Charles calling on the land.

    He liked words and ‘Uncleftish Beholding’ which uses solely Anglo-Saxon rooted words to describe atomic theory. I suspect the same impulse behind that was behind writing MIDSUMMER TEMPEST in iambic pentameter.

    1. I wasn’t at all familiar with Poul Anderson before reading this book, so thank you for the information on him. While I can’t say that I loved this particular novel, I would still like to try one of his others at some point. Three Hearts and Three Lions sounds quite appealing.

      I do prefer books with strong characters, though. I wondered whether the rather unemotional, factual feel of The Golden Horn was inspired by the style of old Norse sagas, but maybe not, if you have found the same thing with his other books.

  4. Sorry to hear this didn’t quite do it for you. The characters and setting sound interesting, but like you a connection with the characters is really important for me too. Have you ever read Bernard Cornwell? I have always been put off a bit because I thought they’d be heavy on battles. I am reconsidering now I have just watched and loved the BBC’s adaptation of his Saxon novels, The Last Kingdom.

    1. I started to read one of Bernard Cornwell’s novels, Stonehenge, a few years ago but couldn’t get into it. I do want to try some of his other books, but have also been put off thinking that there might be too many battle scenes. If you do read one I’ll be interested to hear what you think of it.

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