Hello, happy Saturday to everyone! While I am reading some longer books and working far too many hours, I offered my blog up for guest posts! Alex @ At Boundary’s Edge writes exclusively science fiction on his blog, but also reads some excellent fantasy books. Here he’s talking about a series I’ve never heard of until we were in London: Under the Northern Sky by Leo Carew. I’ll shut up now, enjoy this great article ♥️
Under the Northern Sky: A Hidden Gem of Modern Heroic Fantasy
When people say ‘fantasy’ to me, it’s usually got another word in front of it. Epic Fantasy. Grimdark Fantasy. Urban Fantasy. These are the subgenres that have come to dominate the modern fantasy field. Urban Fantasy is the home of detectives wielding magic. Grimdark fantasy is the home of horrible people being horrible to each other in a horrible world. Epic fantasy, the most dominant of three, is about scheming politicians, calculating wizards, and world-spanning conflicts. There are other subgenres, of course. Cosy Fantasy seems to be on the rise. Science Fantasy will always work its way through the cracks. But one subgenre that seems to have fallen out of favour in recent years is Heroic Fantasy. On the face of it, Heroic and Epic fantasy look much the same. Look a little deeper, and you’ll start to see the differences.
Heroic Fantasy is what it sounds like. Fantasy about heroes. People who try to do the right thing, even when it’s far from the easiest thing to be doing. It has a lot in common with Sword & Sorcery, in that it tends to feature wilder worlds, where bandits and monsters are in abundance. Magic is rarely explained, and certainly not commonplace. To my untrained eye, Heroic Fantasy seems to be more a British genre than an American one. It was pioneered by the late, great David Gemmell in books such as Legend and Waylander. Gemmell’s heirs include James Barclay, Miles Cameron, and Stephen Aryan. These authors create vivid worlds that feel at once strange and exotic, yet plausibly familiar. Gemmell was famously in the anti-map camp of writers. Yet with the simple worlds ‘Lentrian Red’ he conjured visions of epic landscapes and lived-in worlds. I have searched for years for an author who can bring that same vivid touch to the simplest of things.
In Leo Carew’s Under the Northern Sky, I have finally found it.
Consisting of The Wolf, The Spider, and The Cuckoo, this trilogy is a masterful fusion of history, myth, and fantasy. It is set in a world analogous to the Dark Ages of Europe, and shares common elements of our history. The people speak Saxon, an Empire clearly Roman has receded, and even the place names and towns of Albion will be familiar to a reader with a grasp on geography. But this is not our world. In the book world, homo sapiens is not the only strain of humanity to prosper. The protagonist, Roper, is from the evolutionary chain that spawned the Neanderthal, larger than a man, and with thick plates of bone across his body. In what we would call Wales, there lives a race of giants descended from the ape Gigantopithecus. The evolutionary science is speculative, yet plausible.
All of this feeds into a conflict across Albion as Roper first ascends to power, and ultimately leads his armies against the south. Here we find the Saxons, regular humans who have nevertheless diverged from real history in their kingdoms and alliances. The South has the feeling of history, while not being a slavish retelling of what truly happened. The differences allow Carew to push society in new directions. Not needlessly modernising it for the reader, but by taking what could have been, and turning it into what is. Here we meet Bellamus, by far the most compelling and ultimately sympathetic antagonist I’ve met in recent years. The courts of the Saxon are different from those of the Black Lords in the North, but equally compelling.
There is no magic to be found in this world. Battles are won by the swinging of swords, and the grit of one man pushing steel into another’s belly. Spears rule battlefields, and hyenas crawl in the aftermath. Combat bleeds from the pages, visceral, brutal, and bloody. Carew pulls as few punches as his protagonists, and no one is spared the killing blow. This is a series where you can feel the mud churning around your feet as you read. The rain hammering on shields overhead, and the screaming of the dying.
But this is no mere bloodbath. There is politics too, with scheming and duplicity on both sides of the conflict. Everyone, from Roper and Bellamus to the lowliest of courtiers has an agenda. Allegiances shift quickly, and no one is ever fully in the right or the wrong. Albion is a land wrought in tragedy, and plans change as swiftly as the tide of battle.
And yet even amid all this, there is light in the darkness. Those who commit atrocities are driven by noble goals. There is love, and romance, and kinship. In this land of violence, there are years of peace. Yes, war will come, but the soldiers are fighting for something. This is not death for the sake of death. Hard as life may be, they are fighting for life. For the chance to build something for their families, and those who will come after them.
Carew’s writing is simply fantastic. It’s Abercombie without the snarl. Jordan without the fluff. Erikson without the pomposity. Nothing in his words is wasted. It is fresh and modern, yet at the same time is as timeless as the realm his characters inhabit. It is as close to Gemmell as I have ever found. Simply put, it’s stunning. It has the freshness of the best fantasy, but the familiarity of historical fiction. If you enjoy shows like Vikings and The Last Kingdom, then this is the perfect gateway into fantasy. And if you’re knee deep in all the latest epics, Under the Northern Sky still has plenty to offer.
Perhaps the best part of all is that this trilogy is complete. No waiting for the next book. No wondering if it will ever come. Three books. One story. Finished. That’s rare enough to be worthy of praise. If there were to be more books, I would be overjoyed. But in this trilogy, Roper’s arc is complete. His myth is written, and now he stands as a shape in the mist. Another great man of fantasy whose path I will not cross again.
You can find Alex online
On Twitter at https://twitter.com/HormannAlex
Book Review of The Wolf by Leo Carew