On a list of historical times and places I would love to live in – I'm just waiting for that time machine, which will surely be invented soon by Elon Musk – the early 9th century is pretty smack bang right at the very bottom of my list. 

There is a reason why historians, up until the late 20th century, rightly dubbed this the "Dark Ages" – it was a time of lawlessness, violence, and ignorance. 

Life was, to borrow that famous phrase, "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." And, if I can add my own flourish, it was probably extremely dirty, too. 

Despite recent academic attempts to highlight the cultural flowerings of Charlemagne's court or to present Vikings as more traders than raiders, the archeological evidence disputes this. 

During this century in England, there was not only widespread violent devastation caused by endless Viking raids and conquests, but this devastation also led to a near-apocalyptic decline in education and learning. 

By the middle of the century, Vikings had carved up England between an Anglo-Saxon minority and a Danish majority, where Danish law prevailed

This setting forms the backdrop for Giles Kristian's novel, Blood Eye, marking the beginning of the Viking story in England. 

In Blood Eye, Osric's journey unfolds against raids and treachery, marked by the arrival of a Viking war band led by Jarl Sigurd, setting the stage for an epic quest for justice. Illustration: The Viking Herald

Raids, treachery, and raven 

All good stories need a hero, and ours, Osric, has an early life shrouded in mystery. 

A mere boy, only 14, he was found near the village of Abbotsford with no knowledge or recollection of his past life. 

Not only is this young (Anglo) Saxon teen mysterious, but he also bears a spooky blood-red eye, hence the title Blood Eye

He fears that, although he "knows nothing of my previous life," his "earliest memories are stained red. They are written in the blood that marks my left eye..." 

Due to his unknown past and physical "defect," he is seen by the nearby villagers as a freak, a social outcast, and a "demon spawn," in the words of the harsh local priest. 

Taken on as an apprentice by a local man (who is blind), he appears content living his life in a rather dull and boring medieval peasant-type way. 

Yet despite this rather mysterious and incongruous start to life, Osric's luck soon turns with the somewhat ironic arrival of a Viking war band led by the famous Jarl Sigurd, known as "the Lucky." 

Sigurd's introduction proves to be the catalyst for the story's true beginning, as Osric soon foils a plot to treacherously kill him. 

Subsequently nicknamed "Raven" (with no spoilers as to why), Osric embarks on a quest for vengeance, quickly finding himself drawn into a web of treachery, betrayal, and ancient rivalries. 

This detailed and fast-paced narrative, despite being Kristian's first novel, showcases his adeptness at crafting a compelling story within the well-explored trope of the hero with a mysterious past. Illustration: The Viking Herald

Detailed and fast-paced narrative 

Given that this was Kristian's first novel, we can perhaps be a little forgiving. 

The trope of the "hero with a mysterious past" has been repeatedly explored throughout the history of literature. At first glance, one might expect Kristian to add nothing new to this tried and tested formula. 

Yet despite this rather formulaic story arc, Kristian seems to have conducted more than adequate research for this period. 

The novel features very modern and graphic descriptions of battle, as well as rather gruesome torture scenes, including the infamous blood eagle.

This style lives up to the "blood and guts" approach of historical fiction that has become increasingly popular in recent times, thanks in large part to Bernard Cornwell's The Last Kingdom series

The attention to small details, from the slang used by Sigurd and his men to the earlier Anglo-Saxon humor and insults, demonstrates the level of detail Kristian has put into his first outing as a published author. 

The novel should also be praised for its page-turning pace, offering an action-packed romp through the Viking world. 

One minor criticism is that sometimes, this pacing can be uneven, leading to certain sections feeling underdeveloped. 

Additionally, despite Kristian's extensive research, there are some scenes where the narrative veers towards simple stereotypes and clichés. 

Despite these minor flaws, Blood Eye is a rollicking historical yarn in the best spirit of a Viking saga. 

Full of intrigue, adventure, and pulse-pounding action, you'll soon be absorbed by Osric's quest, filled with moral dilemmas and hidden "demons," as well as his broader adventures to discover who he really is. 

Blood Eye by Giles Kristian is available for purchase on Amazon here

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