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The High City    by Cecelia Holland order for
High City
by Cecelia Holland
Order:  USA  Can
Forge, 2009 (2009)
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

The High City is the fifth in Cecelia Holland's 10th century series that has taken readers from Ireland to England, Denmark, across the Atlantic to Vinland, and back again to journey south through Europe. The previous book, Varanger, followed the adventures of Corban Loosestrife's son Conn and nephew Raef, from frozen Holmgard south to the walled city of Chersonese. Their expedition ended in Conn's death near Kiev. Conn saved Raef's life and left him feeling 'like a shadow, a ghost, with no place in the world.'

As The High City opens, Raef, missing 'his heart's brother' and emotionally adrift, has taken work as a rower on a ship where he and his crewmates have no common language. After they are shipwrecked near Chrysopolis, the others are captured and tortured by soldiers of an army laying siege to the city. Raef saves his oarmate Markos and intervenes to destroy a stone-thrower getting ready to attack ships from the other side. This changes the course of the battle, giving the victory to Emperor Basil and his force of Varangians. The latter are under the command of Michael Lecapenus, with whom Conn and Raef came into conflict in Varanger.

Raef joins old friends amongst the Varangians as they return to Constantinople after the victory. But his independence - and the magic that still haunts him - prevents him from joining his old friends to fight for the Emperor - who does not tolerate refusal. Raef is betrayed, both by an old enemy and by a new friend, and aided by Michael Lecapenus and by a young whore named Laissa. He's accused of treason and he's offered a place by the side of an Empress. But he finally leaves this corrupt city, 'all dominated by the things of men', to find his own life's purpose in the west.

As always Cecelia Holland takes readers into a distant era and makes it feel like they are living in that time. In The High City, she also continues the epic tale of Raef Corbansson and shows how a stubborn individualist can affect the destiny of nations and of the powerful. Fans of historical fiction do not want to miss this excellent series.

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