The Hammer and the Cross

Harry Harrison, Author Tor Books $23.95 (415p) ISBN 978-0-312-85439-3

In this rich and exciting alternate history, Harrison ( Stainless Steel Visions ) evokes the spirit and atmosphere of the so-called Dark Ages with wit, sensitivity and impeccable research. England in the ninth century suffers from frequent Viking attacks, and when King Ella of Northumbria captures the infamous Ragnar, he vents his people's fury in a particularly humiliating execution. But Ragnar has four devoted (and equally cruel) sons, who vow to pillage all of England in revenge. As they establish a beachhead, burning villages and taking prisoners as slaves, Shef--bastard son of a Viking raider--enters the Viking camp in order to rescue his stolen adopted sister Godive. In doing so, he becomes the linchpin in the many-sided struggle between factions in the Viking camp; between one small English kingdom and another; and between followers of a new Viking sect that reveres learning and invention and the Church, which fears the loss of English tithes. Harrison eschews simple dichotomies in portraying a world where a pagan religion challenges Christianity to found a more humane and tolerant society. Readers need not be experts in medieval history to appreciate the story of Shef's rise from slave to king of a kingdom that never was but should have been. (Sept.)