17 February 2021

Historical novel and fantasy subgenre

The Golden Horde (Tales of Old Russia #3)

The Golden Horde by Peter Morwood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I bought this book cheap on a sale 21 years ago and never read it because when I got home I discovered that it was part of a series, and we did not have the first two parts. Then, with the library closed because of Covid, I took it off the shelf where it had sat all these years, and discovered that it is a mixture of two genres -- the historical novel and the fantasy/fairy story. As most of my attempts to write fiction have been in the same sub-genre, and the one I've been writing most recently has a similar setting, I thought it was time I read it if only to see how someone else handles that particular genre, and how they handle similar tropes. 

The Golden Horde is set in Russia in the 13th century, in the time of the Mongol invasions, and to begin with I did not like it very much and nearly abandoned it after the first couple of chapters, but then it seemed to improve. There are references to the preceding volumes in the series, which I still don't have, but it stands up quite well as a stand-alone story.

So much for my actual review of the book -- to say much more would reveal too much of the plot, so if you haven't read it and might want to, stop reading here.

I didn't much like the way Peter Morwood handled some of the historical figures mentioned, and some of the tropes. Perhaps that is prejudice on my part; for example, as an Orthodox Christian I was sorry that he had nothing good to say about St Alexander Nevsky. Now Alexander Nevsky is not my favourite saint, mainly because, as a pacifist, I am not drawn to soldier saints very much, or at least I am more drawn to the ones who, like St Martin of Tours, became conscientious objectors. But the Orthodox Church is not a "peace church" like the Quakers and the Mennonites. It has as both soldier saints and peacenik saints. And in the times in which St Alexander Nevsky lived, it was almost impossible for anyone in political leadership not to be drawn into wars. But Peter Morwood seems to think that sorcery is the better option, and his portrayal of St Alexander Nevsky is entirely negative.

In other tropes, however, there is a hint of the Inklings, especially the novels of Charles Williams and C.S. Lewis in his novel That Hideous Strength. Batu, Khan of the Golden Horde, collects the crowns of the Russian princes he conquers. Those who surrender hand over their crowns voluntarily, in acknowledgement that henceforth they rule at the Khan's pleasure. Those who do not surrender their crowns have them taken by force. And the accumulation of crowns represents a dangerous accumulation of power, which irrupts into the world in Charles Williams fashion when a group of Russian nobles decide to offer a sacrifice to Chernibog, an old Russian pagan god. 

To counter this, the Princess and sorceress Mar'ya Morevna uses her grimoire to summon Byelobog, the white god of ancient Russia. As Morwood describes it:

To the Tatars, that was Tangri the Eternal Blue Sky fighting Erlik Khan with his thunderbolt, though Ivan knew there was at least one old servant who had come with him down from Khorlov who would see Othinn or Thorr wielding spear or hammer against their old adversary Jorungandr  the Midgarth-serpent. To some of the Russians, it would be Byelobog struggling with Chernobog, but the rest would see the Archangel Mikhail come to do battle against the darkness and the old serpent, not for them alone, but for all thee wide white world.

... echoes of the scene in That Hideous Strength where the gods of the planets descended on Belbury, where all the evil in Thulcandra has gathered.

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