The Soul Thief: Cecelia Holland

★★½

The Life and Times of Corban Loosestrife: Book 1

Cecelia Holland’s series of Viking-era adventure novels have just been reissued in Kindle format and this proved a good excuse to make a start on them. As some of you will remember, I’ve had a mixed reaction to Holland in the past – enjoying her Byzantine Belt of Gold, but remaining unmoved by her Borgia-centred City of God. However, as many people have praised her to me, I’m determined to keep giving her new chances, especially as she writes about a fascinating variety of historical periods. This is one of the more familiar settings, of course, and I plunged with interest into Holland’s story of Corban Loosestrife – outcast, stranger, unwitting catalyst – on his quest to recover his kidnapped sister Mav. In doing so, he is drawn into the politics of Viking Jorvik and Norway; and, more worryingly, into the clutches of the enigmatic Lady of Hedeby, who has saved Mav from one kind of slavery, only to draw her into another.

Corban is independent and thoughtful, the very antithesis of the warrior son his father desires. When yet another argument spirals into a threat of banishment, Corban leaves his twin sister Mav to make amends and goes off to sleep rough for the night. The next morning, however, he returns home to find, not his father’s forgiveness, but a farm that has been despoiled and burned; his parents dead beneath the raiders’ knives; the workers slaughtered; and the young, strong women carried off as slaves – Mav among them. Corban has never had the courage or conviction to do much with his life but now, with his twin swept away from him, he’s overcome by a burning desire to find her. And so he sets off, with nothing to his name but his sling, first to the Danish encampment at Dubh Linn and then across the sea to Jorvik. Here, with the debatable help of his friend Grod, Corban seeks news of Mav and tries to make a temporary home for himself.

Jorvik lies under the rule of Eric Bloodaxe, formerly a great warrior but now a bloated, arrogant shadow of his former self, governed by the iron will and glamours of his far-seeing wife, Gunnhild. As Danish warriors roam the streets, terrorising the people and imposing unsustainable taxes, resentment grows. How is a man to survive in a place like this? Should Corban accept the invitation to become one of Eric’s men – supporting the powers who sacked his farm and murdered his family, in order to feed himself – or is there another way? As his relationship with the potter-woman Benna blossoms into shy mutual interest, Corban is unwilling to choose hall over town – but when news comes of Mav, he realises that he risks losing sight of his true path.

For her part, Mav lies sick in the house of the woman who has bought her – the wealthy trader and sorceress, the Lady of Hedeby. Concealed with glamours and shifting shapes, the Lady sees great potential within Mav, both in the present as a spy – through her mystical connection with her brother Corban – and also in the future as a power-source. As Mav quickens with the child she has conceived from her rape by the Viking slavers, the Lady watches over her, waiting, listening to news of Corban’s approach, and wondering how best to dispose the world to her advantage.

All the aspects are there: adventure, great storms, a sprinkling of non-soppy romance and a quest. I should have loved this book, but in fact I can only bring myself to feel lukewarm about it. Imagine, if you like, that the parts of the story are pieces of a jigsaw puzzle: it felt as though each individual piece promised a thrilling picture when finally assembled, but that the result was actually rather bland. The different bits just didn’t quite seem to come together. Corban’s quest seemed a bit forced – he was allowed a bit of time in Jorvik and then the plot required him to do something, so he remembered Mav and his quest… it felt plotted rather than organic. I didn’t feel that I ever had a real sense of Mav and the Lady of Hedeby herself was desperately underused: a figure who initially seemed to have the potential of Dorothy Dunnett’s Dame de Doubtance dwindled into a stock witch figure (spoiler ahead), to be courageously outwitted like a monster in a Greek myth. There was so much more I wanted to know about the Lady of Hedeby: how did she get her powers? How old was she? How does she enchant her ‘slaves’? What are her ultimate ambitions? How did she develop this relationship with Harald Bluetooth?

Perhaps we learn more later in the series, but I doubt it: I suspect that Holland will be far more interested in following Corban who, despite being a well-drawn character, is mainly of interest for the things we see through his eyes, rather than for the person he is. I think there’s a strong possibility that, having briefly (and accidentally) visited the shores of Vinland in this book, Corban will eventually return to the New World and make his own paradise there – he already shows strong signs of wanting to do so. In the meantime, without any immediate sign of a great overarching narrative or quest, it looks as though he’ll become a kind of Viking everyman, touring the hotspots of the 10th-century world (one of the later books is set in Byzantium). While Dunnett carried off this kind of touring romp with aplomb, there was so much more going on in her books and I suppose at the moment I just feel that Corban’s adventures are a tiny bit superficial and lacklustre. I wanted more meat, more depth, more engagement, more everything.

However, this may simply be the curse of a first book, which naturally has to set up plotlines and characters, and maybe doesn’t have the chance to get into its material quite so deeply as its successors will. Let’s keep our fingers crossed. I have the entire series on my Kindle so, one way or the other, we’ll be finding out together.

Buy the book

Next in the series: The Witches’ Kitchen

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