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The High City
Cecelia Holland
Forge, 320 pages

The High City
Cecelia Holland
Cecelia Holland is the author of more than thirty novels, including The Angel and the Sword, Jerusalem, Lily Nevada, and The Kings in Winter. She lives in Humboldt County, in northern California, where she teaches creative writing, and is current at work on a new historical novel.

Cecelia Holland Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Matthew Hughes

A few years back I was reading the opening chapter of a historical novel set in Roman Britain, the first of a highly successful series. The hero, a centurion, was trapped with his cohort in one of the small forts that legionaries would build every night when they were on the march. Outside the flimsy walls was a horde of sword-swinging Celts and Picts who had swept over Hadrian's Wall to raid the fat Roman provincial towns.

The cohort's commander handpicked a unit of fifty veterans and ordered them to go out a side gate and attack the barbarians' flank. "Don't worry," he told them. "Although you're outnumbered a hundred to one, you will prevail, because they fight as individuals but you will fight as a machine."

At that point, I found it hard to continue. Not because the prediction was inaccurate -- Roman infantry frequently destroyed Celtic armies many times their number -- but because no fourth-century Roman would have used the metaphor "fight like a machine." Nor would anyone until the industrial revolution made the idea of the efficiency of coordinated mechanical processes part of our mental furniture.

"The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there," as L.P. Hartley observed in The Go-Between. The people of the past did things differently because their interiors were different from ours. Ideas that we take for granted -- like the concept (born of the Romantic era), that life is about an individual's search for personal happiness -- were not part of the intellectual furniture of our pre-Romantic forebears, for whom obligation to family was the central fact of existence. The people of the future will be no less different from us, plotting their progress through life using landmarks that, in our era, haven't yet appeared on the horizon.

One of the attractions of science fiction, when it's done right, is that it brings us into contact with that sense of "otherliness," with characters who don't see the world the way we do, because not only is their world different, but the characters themselves are not like us.

Historical fiction, when it's well done, has the same mind-loosening effect. And no one does it better than Cecelia Holland, who began turning out bestselling novels more than forty years ago. In recent years, she has been writing a series for Forge set among the Vikings of the tenth century and the peoples and places they bumped up against -- and, boy, did they bump up against a lot of other places, from Ireland to the forests of North America, from the steppes of Russia to the palaces of Byzantium.

In The Soul Thief, Holland introduced Corban Loosestrife, an Irishman whose witchy twin sister, Mav, was raped and carried off by Viking raiders, prompting him to go looking for her. The series has grown into a multi-generational saga and now, in the fifth and latest volume, The High City, we're following Raef, Mav's fey and fated son. He has worked his way downriver from Kiev and across the Black Sea just in time to be shipwrecked off Byzantium and caught up in a battle between the Emperor Basil II and the cataphracts of Bardas Phokas, a general who seeks to usurp the throne.

Raef is a perpetual outsider, marked not only by being conceived in rape but by the not-always-helpful magic powers he has inherited from his mother. While Vikings are flocking to join Basil's Varangian guard, lured by the promise of gold and more gold, Raef will not bend the knee to any man. At the heart of The High City is the clash between the Emperor and the wanderer, and a less able historical novelist would have rendered the conflict in stereotypes from our own era -- the rebel resisting a constricting power structure, or the western gunfighter at odds with the land baron who wants to hire him.

But Holland is more than able. She is the finest author of historical fiction working in English today. So she gives us tenth-century characters, from two very different cultures, and gives them to us without breaking the flow of events to deliver scene-setting lectures and background briefings. Instead, she plops us right down into the characters' heads, and we experience their worlds through their points of view as they get on with their busy, dangerous lives. And, gradually, like a subtle spell, a sense of the otherliness of the past gets hold of us.

If we ever get time travel, this is what it will be like -- immersion in that "foreign country" where they do things differently. Until then, superb historical novelists like Cecelia Holland are the next best thing to a time machine.

Copyright © 2009 Matthew Hughes

Matthew Hughes
Matthew Hughes writes science fantasy. His stories have appeared in Asimov's, F&SF, Postscripts and Interzone. His latest novels are Template, and Hespira: A Tale of Henghis Hapthorn. His web page is at

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