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!)’