Interview: Giles Kristian
With the release of his latest novel, God of Vengeance, we ask the acclaimed author why he is so fascinated with the world of the Vikings
After the success of his Raven trilogy, Giles Kristian has returned to the Viking era with his new novel, God of Vengeance. The author has always been interested in the Vikings, thanks in part to having a Norweigan mum and spending a lot of time in the fjords of Norway. We ask him about his new book, whether the Vikings deserved their fierce reputation and why he would want Harald Hardrada over to dinner...
What is your new book about?
God of Vengeance is a prequel to the Raven saga. I wanted to revisit the Viking world and to do that, I picked my favourite character, Sigurd. What I wanted to do was to find out where he comes from, what his story is, and what makes him the kind of man that others would follow. So I took Sigurd back to when he was 17 and laid out his motivation for why he wants to become a jarl. I had a great time, I was able to resurrect characters I had killed off throughout the Raven saga – I do like to kill off characters, even the ones I’m really fond of! – so it was a really good opportunity to bring them back and give them a back story. Bit of a Dirty Dozen thing really. It’s a prequel but the good thing about it is that it doesn’t really matter what order you read them in.
Did you always know you would go back to these characters?
Yeah, I missed them. I missed the Viking world and I missed these characters. I wrote a couple of novels in the meantime set in the English civil war. They were very different and research heavy so I think it was a little bit of me just wanting to have fun again. Which is what I did with God of Vengeance. I wrote the whole thing quite quickly, with no plan at all. What makes this book so exciting for me is that I came back to the world I was familiar with, but I came back to it with renewed enthusiasm but also, I think, a better understanding of the craft.
Why are the Vikings so popular?
I think people are starting to get their heads around the fact that the word itself describes an occupation rather than an ethnicity. I think in the past, people thought it only applied to people from a certain part of Norway or Denmark but really it’s another word for 'pirate' and I think there’s always something romantic about the idea of a crew of people, a band of brothers, who are living outside of society’s normal rules. And then you’ve got the idea of them being exceptionally brave - to brave the north Atlantic and travel as far as they did, that shows incredible bravery. The wanderlust they had, to want to discover new things, to leave everything behind, to put their lives in the hands of fate and to settle new lands, to fight wars and to become bodyguards for the emperor of Constantinople. There’s a lot to admire about them.
Do you think the Vikings deserve their bloodthirsty reputation?
I do, and it think that’s a good thing! They got what they wanted and they took what they wanted. What they were doing was no worse perhaps than what anyone else was doing, it’s just that they were better at it. The evidence against them is heavily skewed in favour of the people writing it - the Christian monks. Even though the Vikings did settle, they didn’t write their own history so we don’t have their side of the story. They were only doing what the Saxons did before them and what the Romans did before them.
What research did you do for God of Vengeance?
It’s the pre-Norwegian kings period so it's still a time of petty kings and jarls and lords living all over the place so there’s no real written history of this period, so it does enable me to do what I like really, which is great fun. I went to Norway to row a Viking ship last June and that was really the catalyst for this book because I set the story in the islands where we rowed the ship and where we stayed.That was amazing to see the landscape, to be on a Viking ship and smell the pine resin that coated every inch of the boat and the ropes. It's more of a sensory research.
What was it like rowing a Viking ship?
It was absolutely awesome. It's called the Dragon Harald Fairhair (after a 9th century king who united Norway) and it’s the largest replica Viking ship that’s ever been built. It’s a huge thing, it’s got 50 oars and it was two men to an oar. The boat is actually 114 feet of oak, its huge. Just the sail was 3,200 square foot of sail. They were looking for volunteers and fortunately I was lucky enough to get the chance to be one of the volunteers. We went over and spent a few days rowing and seeing how it performed which was a privilege and an honour.
I hope to get the chance to sail on it properly. I made a deal with Carstan, the Danish skipper, and he told me if I put him in God of Vengeance he would let me come and sail on it. We’ll see what happens with that, it depends on what he makes about the ending I’ve given him! The funny thing is that you know Vikings are given these names like Ivar the Boneless and Harald Bluetooth, and these names were given to them by other people. Carstan said to me, “I want to be in your book but I want to be Carstan the strong!” I thought, that was pretty unusual so in the book there is a character, a Danish skipper, who actually introduces himself as Carstan the Strong - which doesn’t go down that well. It was too good not to put it in.
As well as writing God of Vengeance, you were heavily involved in producing a book trailer for it. What was that like?
It was so much fun to make, it was really great. I don’t think there’s another book trailer out there quite like it. We were looking for a guy to play Sigurd and we came across a model who lives in Denmark – his name is Thor funnily enough – and he looked absolutely amazing for the role. He very kindly flew over from Denmark and we tied him to a tree for the most of the night in a field, which wasn’t what he was used to as a pretty high-flying model.
I am very fortunate in that a friend of mine is a film director, Philip Stevens. He is not only hugely talented but he is a big reader of historical fiction and he seems to know everything about my books. The more time I spend with him, the more I think I’m writing in a filmic way. As I writing, I know how he would shoot it if it was a movie. He’s a hugely talented director, he pulled out all the stops to get crews together. I wouldn’t be able to do it if people weren’t giving of their time for next to nothing, but I think we ended up with something that’s pretty unique and special.
The God of Vengeance trailer is above. Check out the trailer for The Bleeding Land (his novel set in the English Civil War):
After the Raven saga, you published two books on the English Civil War. Why the change?
I’ve always been interested in the English Civil War. As a kid, one of the games that we played was Roundheads and Cavaliers. We would all be in a big melee and I always thought I was a Cavalier fencing for my life. It was completely serious!
When I was looking for a new subject, there wasn’t much fiction set in the Civil War. There’s a lot of great non-fiction but there didn’t seem to be much fiction, and I didn’t know why. We’re talking about a period of Roundheads and Cavaliers, of pirates and witchfinders, and they killed the King of England. It was an extraordinary seminal time in the history of the country and I thought what a great backdrop against which to set a fictional tale. But then again, I didn’t want to tell the story of the English Civil War, I wanted to tell the story of a family caught up in it. I set the family up in the way my own family is set up, so I basically put us all in the tale and tried to get under the skin of what it must be like to be facing your brother on the other side of a battlefield. Writing it, at times, was very emotional.
I’ve still got to finish that series. I keep getting emails from people saying, “you can’t leave it there, what’s happening?” so I do know I need to get back to the English Civil War. They’ve also signed me up for two more Viking books about Sigurd and his quest for vengeance. So I’ve got a lot to do!
And finally, who would you invite to you fantasty dinner party?
I would invite Harald Hardrada. He was the most feared warrior of his age and had an extraordinary life as a professional soldier in a time before that was normal. To go from Norway to being the bodyguard of the emperor of Constantinople, it’s quite a journey in all sorts of ways. Then, there was his last roll of the dice to seize the English throne, which didn’t end so well, but I think it ended as a Viking warrior should - on the battlefield really going for it. It would be quite a raucous dinner I’d imagine, but that’s a good thing!
Here is a poem written by Giles on Harald Hardrada:
God of Vengeance is on sale now, in hardback. Head to Giles' website to buy a copy.