“Death of Kings” by Bernard Cornwell (HarperCollins, 2012)

Death of Kings
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In the sixth book of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Tales, he makes it clear with the title that this is the most important book of the series, as it’s the one where Alfred the Great finally passes from this world, leaving this torn country with an uncertain future, and it will be up to his successor to decide what to do.

King Alfred dreamed of a united England, but now as he lies on his death bed, time is running out and this reality seems like it won’t be happening anytime soon.  The Danes to the north are still not giving up, controlling a considerable proportion of the country and hungry for more.  It comes down to who has the more soldiers and the stronger alliances.  Also, even though Alfred’s son Edward is the heir apparent, there are some other Saxons who have aims of taking the throne.  The Saxon-born, Viking-raised Uhtred who still believes strongly in the Norse gods will be the leader to once again make things happen; he has already sacrificed much for Alfred, and now finally receives a just reward, but he will have to fight to keep it from the attacking Danes, as well as swear fealty to the new king, Edward.

Fans will quickly gobble up Death of Kings, as they pay witness to the passing of an important character that was inevitably going to happen, but the good news is that Cornwell makes it clear in his afterword that while Alfred’s part in this story may now be over, there is still more to tell, and Uhtred still has an important part to play.

Originally written on February 6, 2012 ©Alex C. Telander.

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The Burning Land    Agincourt    Sword Song    Lords of the North

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“The Burning Land” by Bernard Cornwell (Harpercollins, 2010)

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In this fifth installment of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Tales, as he reveals the incredible life of Alfred the Great and the world of Viking England, he doesn’t hold back, putting his hero, Uhtred, through every trial and tribulation possible.  Uhtred finds himself tested by Alfred, by the priest because of his pagan beliefs, by his Viking friends, and by his Saxon friends.  Compared to the last four books in the series, The Burning Land has a lot more going on, as the end appears to be in sight for Alfred, for Uhtred, and for Cornwell.

England is still in a shambles, as hoards of Vikings march across the land, taking towns and slaughtering people, while Alfred defends his small domain in the south.  Alfred has become pious in his old age, turning to priests for advice and suggestions, which just infuriates Uhtred.  Each time he turns to the man for the final advice on what battle to choose and where to fight, and each time Uhtred leads him to victories, but he never makes it into the tales and stories recorded by the priests.  Cornwell is making a point here that we shouldn’t believe everything of the sources we read, that often reality is very different to what is recorded.  But Uhtred finds himself torn: owing allegiance to Alfred, but also wishing to join the Vikings up north in an effort to take back his land, Bebbanburg, taken by his uncle.  For some time he does fight with the Vikings, putting fear in the heart of the Saxons to the south, as Alfred is rumored to be very ill and possibly dead.  In the new year the rumors are proved otherwise and Uhtred returns to his lord and fights for him once more.

But time is passing; Arthur grows older and sicker, while Uhtred draws closer to fighting for his homeland.  There can’t be too many books left in the Saxon Tales, as Cornwell brings the series to a close in the n ext book or two.  One wonders how it will end for Alfred, and how Uhtred will fair.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on March 11th 2010 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Sword Song: The Battle for London” by Bernard Cornwell (Harpercollins, 2008)

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We last left Uhtred, in Lords of the North, apparently an ally with King Alfred, while the Vikings were making a very successful takeover of England, making it seem like there was little hope left for Alfred and his Saxon people.  But Alfred has God on his side, and feels he will be ultimately victorious; Uhtred on the other hand, a pagan, cares little for this Christian religion, but is still a little unsure of where his allegiances lie.

While the first three of the Saxon Chronicles gave little hope and direction for Uhtred, in Sword Song, he has more to fight for with a wife and child, and another baby on the way.  The old Roman town of London, an important one with its link to the Thames, has been taken over by the Vikings.  If Alfred gives them London, Wessex is next and soon there will be little left to defend and England will be a Viking nation.  So Alfred charges Uhtred with this great task to use the Saxon army, as well as his own loyal men, and take back London.

At this point Uhtred is a warrior and a great leader in a shield wall.  But with the siege of London, he must mount an attack from the Thames, using ships and men.  It will involve all his previous experience with battle, as well as appeasing both the Saxon army, and his own Northmen.  His plan is to appear as an ally to the Vikings upon reaching London which, with his history, is a possibility, but then to spring the trap and take back the pivotal town.  The question is whether Uhtred will live up to his side of the bargain, with his loyalty being challenged.  Coupled with this is Aethelflæd, Alfred’s daughter, who has been recently kidnapped and is being held somewhere in London by a Viking lord; her life must be protected at all costs.

Sword Song jumps the bestselling series one big step forward, with this pivotal battle in the creation of the nation of England and its people.  Ending on a cliffhanger, Cornwell skillfully leaves fans having to wait another whole year until they can get the next important chapter in the story of Alfred the Great.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on January 27th, 2008 ©Alex C. Telander.

For an interview with Bernard Cornwell check out BookBanter Episode 5.

“The Pale Horseman” by Bernard Cornwell (Harpercollins, 2006)

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In The Pale Horseman (sequel to The Last Kingdom), Bernard Cornwell surges on with his series on the life of Alfred the Great, but not simply with a furthering of the plot, but some clear development in both story, character, and the whole point Cornwell is trying to make with this series.

In Pale Horseman we now learn that our hero from the last book, Uhtred of Bebbanburg, while just as skilled in his knowledge of languages, way with words, as well as his ability with his trusty sword – Serpent-breath – is actually not that great of a guy.   When he has to spend time at home with his child and pious wife who wants him to be a good Christian, he treats them with disdain and instead goes off with his buddies on one of Alfred’s ships, kills a lot of people, and steals considerable amounts of wealth, as well as kidnapping his very own pagan sorceress.  While the pathetic excuse for this case can be made that “it’s what men did back then,” I find it an admirable move by Cornwell to make the protagonist out to be a character that most would find at the least disreputable.  But ultimately these facets of Uhtred’s character only serve to make him more believable, which is certainly a critique of the characters in Cornwell’s other works.

At the same time, he magnificently captures the feel of the period.  Here you have the Saxons trying to defend their country (which they invaded just four hundred years before and occupied) against the Vikings and Danes who all but succeed in their conquering of Britain.  Cornwell even goes on to say in his elucidating “author’s note” that if it weren’t for Alfred’s decision, when all seemed lost, to still fight back and win, that Cornwell would be telling this story in Danish.  Whether you’re a Saxon, a Viking, or a Briton; identity was something both questioned and sought after in this melting pot of a country.  Cornwell cleverly reveals this with Uhtred’s ability to speak many languages, as well as being often thought a Viking or a Briton, but not a Saxon, which he considers himself.

At the end when all that remains of Saxon Britain is a small area of marsh in Wessex, Alfred unites his people who band together from all areas of the surrounding country, and manages to defeat and push the Vikings out of his land, making Wessex the one strong remaining Saxon place left in all Britain.  It was with this victory that Alfred earned the title “great.”  The book ends with the future knowledge and hope that Alfred the Great will begin taking back the rest of Britain and pushing the Vikings out for good.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on December 6th, 2006 ©Alex C. Telander.

For an interview with Bernard Cornwell check out BookBanter Episode 5.

“The Last Kingdom” by Bernard Cornwell (Harpercollins, 2005)

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I’ve been working on a novel for the last four years or so that’s been going pretty slowly. I’ve been doing it in chunks, mainly because it’s historical fiction and involves a lot of research and I’ve essentially been getting stuck at some point and needing to research more before I can get started writing again.  Now I’m at a point where I need to read a few books to complete the current research.  The book was called The Ruin, though I recently changed the title to Wyrd, which is Anglo-Saxon for destiny.  While the book is set in the fifth century in England and has characters that may turn out to be Arthurian (I’m not sure yet), the intention of the novel is to encompass the feel and texture of the Early Middle Ages, at a time when society was essentially beginning anew for this forgotten island.

When I started reading The Last Kingdom by one of my favorite authors I got the chilling feeling that Cornwell had done what I was trying to do with my book.  And after finishing it, there’s a lot in it that I can see coming out in my novel, and yet Wyrd will go in different directions and achieve different goals.  Nevertheless, The Last Kingdom was a great book for anyone wanting to get a feel of the ninth century and what it was like for the Anglo-Saxons living there and having to deal with the invading Vikings who were trying to settle and do essentially what the Anglo-Saxons had done a couple of centuries before to the Britons.  While the main character, Uhtred, is but a boy at the beginning and the narrator, our hero is Alfred the Great (the only British king ever to be called “the Great”) and while I’m not sure how long the series is going to be, the reader will see Alfred grow up and become the great king that earned him the title.  I’m quite familiar with Alfred’s history and life and how he emulated Charlemagne in a lot of ways, and it’s really enjoyable to see this fictionalized account from a great author, which has been well researched, and to see these historical characteristics in the fictionalized characters.

I will freely admit that Bernard Cornwell isn’t exactly the most in depth and complex of historical fiction writers, and his characters aren’t always the fully developed real people they should be, but he still does the job well and gets his point across in giving the reader a look into this life, just as he did with his Grail series set in the Later Middle Ages, and his Arthurian series.  It’s also the kind of book that anyone can pick up and get fully sucked into without getting confused or lost along the way with heavy history and jargon.  Cornwell is also sure to point out as much of the native languages as he can, with plenty of translations, to clarify it all.

Next I have The Pale Horseman to read in the series, with Lords of the North to come in January.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on September 15th, 2006 ©Alex C. Telander.

For an interview with Bernard Cornwell check out BookBanter Episode 5.