Blood Feud by Rosemary Sutcliff (1976)

Rosemary Sutcliff is considered to be one of the finest writers of historical novels for children but her writing is appealing for adult readers as well. As she herself said, “I write for children aged 8 to 88.” This ability to appeal to a wide age range is obvious in Blood Feud. I was listening to a podcast on Ukraine which traced the country’s history and they mentioned this book, and as we have the book but I’d never read it, I decided to do so now.

Blood Feud follows the fictitious character of Jestyn Englishman, part Saxon, part Briton (?) who was left an orphan at the age of twelve after his stepfather rejected him when his mother died.
A cattleherd gave him work and lodging and for five years he was quite happy. One evening a sudden storm broke and Jestyn was sent to get the yearlings to safety but they never made it home. A clash with a group of raiders ended up with him being taken to the Dublin Slave Market.
In Dublin Jestyn was bought by a young Viking named Thormod and became his thrall. When he helped save Thormod’s life he was set free and went with him when he returned to his homeland in Denmark.

The underlying thread of the story is that of a blood feud to avenge the murder of Thormod’s father. Jestyn joins his friend and blood brother in the Death Feud which takes the two of them as far as Miklagard, the Viking’s name for Constantinople, the Great City, where they fight under Khan Vladimir and later become a part of the Varangian Guard.
Historical characters in this novel include Basil II, Vladimir the Great, Anna, his future wife, and Bardas Phocas.

‘But it was in that moment…there came to me for the first time an awareness of the Rus as a People, not just a southward swarming of the Viking hoards, with the Tribes as a kind of lesser folk ingathered along the way.’

Like all Rosemary Sutcliff’s superb novels, Blood Feud transports you to a lost world and immerses you in its history. The Byzantine world of the 10th Century and the clash of religion and cultures are fascinating.

The journey east sees Jestyn and Thormond enlist on a ship bound for Kiev, down the Dvina and Dnieper rivers. See the trade route here.

‘The Dvina that flows north to the Baltic, and the Dnieper that goes looping southward past Kiev to the Inland Sea, rise many days apart in the dark forest heart of things; and ships making the river-faring must be man-handled across country from one to the other.’

The Byzantine era is a neglected period of history in books for young people. There are many books based on the Vikings but they focus on their activities in Britain and Europe so this book is unusual in that it looks to the east. It would suit anyone who enjoys an adventure and history. It also is a story of friendship and loyalty.

‘We did not know that we were beginning the Emperor’s life ‘s work for him: the driving back of the Bulgarian frontier to what it was in Justinian’s day, bringing all the lands between Macedonia and the Danube, the Inland Sea and the Adriatic again into the Byzantine Empire. It is done now. Thirty years in the doing, and treaties made and treaties broken, and a whole captured Bulgarian Army blinded along the way. (The Emperor Basil is nothing if not thorough!)’

8 thoughts on “Blood Feud by Rosemary Sutcliff (1976)

  1. I have been wanting to read one of her novels for a while. The literary magazine that I subscribe to, Slightly Foxed, has a publishing arm and publishes her novels in small batches. Now I know which one to start with, thanks to you Carol. I love these sorts of tales because you learn history along the way and this seems timely, given the war in Ukraine. A friend just recommended another book, a biography of sorts, about the German author’s mother and says it is dark and hard to read but also informs you about the Rus and the people of that region. It is called “She Came From Mariupol” by Natascha Wodin. Sadly we all know where that is now. I am off to order this Sutcliff book. Yay!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Cate, we found many of her books years ago at library sales mostly; so good that publishers like Slightly Foxed have re-issued some of her books.
      Some of her books for older teens/adults that I’d recommend are ‘The Dark Queen’ (Boadicca) and ‘Bonnie Dundee’ – Scotland at the time of the Jacobites.
      I just had a quick look online at “She Came From Mariupol” – it does sound dark, as you would expect. I read ‘A Woman in Berlin’ a few years ago (post WW2) & it was a bit too much information for me. That’s what I like about authors like Sutcliff – she’s realistic & ‘takes you there’ but doesn’t overwhelm you. There’s a time for that, I suppose but sometimes it’s better to avoid it!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I did see “Bonnie Dundee” in their collection too, so thanks for the recommendation. I am in agreement that sometimes these darker books, although necessary and appropriate to learn of such history and peoples, are not what I can cope with. I think Sutcliff sounds just about right.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Did you ever read Stephen Lawhead’s novel Byzantium? It also features a kidnapping by Vikings and the victims being sold as slaves to successive masters and ending up in Constantinople. It’s a good story but awfully long and the ending was anticlimactic — after reading your helpful review I think I’d like to try Sutcliff’s version!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Gretchen, I hope you enjoyed your travels. No, I haven’t read that book or anything else by that author.
      Blood Feud is only about 200 pgs. I just read that the recommended age is 9 to 11 years 🙂
      I have to agree with C.S. Lewis:

      “No book is really worth reading at the age of 10 which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.”


  3. Pingback: My Reading in 2022 | journey & destination

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