Bookworm, writer, radio host—I blog about history, fiction, and publishing in the Internet Age. You can find the full blog on my website. This space is for books.
I liked it—which is extraordinary when you consider that Bernard Cornwell's books are miles away from the kinds of books I normally read. I've read several of the Saxon Chronicles (The Last Kingdom, Death of Kings, The Pagan Lord) before this one and liked all of them. There's just something about Uhtred, hard-bitten warlord that he is, that makes him an appealing character. His appreciation for strong women, perhaps, or his relentless honesty, including honesty about his own flaws. Or perhaps it's his quality of being the perpetual outsider: a pagan among Christians, a Saxon who fights for a united England even though he prefers the culture of the Danish raiders who raised and, in their rough and ready way, nurtured him from boy to man. I'm not sure, but some combination of those characteristics certainly explains his attraction.
This book opens, rather disconcertingly, with an exact repetition of the opening sentence of The Last Kingdom—except that after two paragraphs it becomes clear that the character speaking the lines is not "our" Uhtred. I found this clever, both because it hints at a solution to the fundamental problem facing Cornwell as his saga progresses (Uhtred's advancing age) and because it introduces the possibility of a new narrator. At least four characters in this series bear the name Uhtred (it's a family tradition), and the possibility of a new narrator works for me as a writer, because it means that we as readers can't be so certain after all that our Uhtred will make it all the way to the end. More tension = more readers on the edge of their seats, which is a good place for a writer of historical sagas to keep them. And the new Uhtred has many of the same traits that have made the first so appealing.
But no fear, our Uhtred soon makes his appearance and regains his role as the voice of the story. He's not quite up to snuff, healthwise, due to events related in The Pagan Lord, and he uses his disability with his usual aplomb to fight his enemies, assist his friends, and protect those he loves. His daughter Stiorra also comes into her own. To say more would give away too many spoilers, but rest assured that by the end of the book Englaland is just a bit closer to its eventual formation. Cornwell is at the top of his game here, and the only downside for his readers is that we have to wait another twelve months to find out what happens next.
My thanks to HarperCollins, which sent me a free copy of this book for review. If anyone is interested, s/he can hear my interview with Bernard Cornwell for free at New Books in Historical Fiction. (The interview is the reason I received the review copy in the first place.)