“The Pagan Lord” by Bernard Cornwell (HarperCollins, 2014)

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Medieval historical fiction extraordinaire, Bernard Cornwell, is back with the next installment of the Saxon Tales. The Pagan Lord is the seventh in the series, with King Alfred gone and the land is on the eve of war between the Saxons ruled by Alfred’s son, Edward and Wessex; while in the north, the Danes led by the Viking Cnut Longsword looks to take more land.

Our hero, Uhtred, has had his ups and downs in the series, but now wishes to bring what men he can together and take back his inheritance in the distant north land of Bebbanburg, but he will have to fight his uncle and progeny to do that. The Christian faith is also growing in this place that will one day be called “Angeland,” and when Uhtred kills an important bishop, he finds those of the faith also warring against him.

The Pagan Lord pushes Uhtred to the very edge and beyond, bringing the reader along with him. It shows Cornwell doing what he does best, moving his characters around and pitting them against each other in magnificent battle scenes. No one Cornwell book is like the other, which is what makes him such a great writer.

Originally written on January 27, 2014 ©Alex C. Telander.

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“Elves in Anglo-Saxon England” by Alaric Hall (Boydell & Brewer, 2009)

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Alaric Hall, a lecturer in Medieval English Literature at the University of Leeds, delves into the sources that mention or reference elves, or ælfe, looking not just at texts and writings from Britain, but also Scandinavia and mainland Europe to find similarities and linkages in these references.  Hall breaks it down to the language level, exploring spellings, uses, as well as inferring meanings for elves, which at times can get dense, but for those looking for proof in the original language, Hall certainly does this, using the original Old English and providing translations.  He is quick to point out that while comparing British texts with sources from other countries, one cannot make assumptions through this as they are from different cultures.  References are made between elves on the subject of belief, health, gender, and identity, each with their own chapter, and while it is relatively short book, Hall has begun an important foundation here as more is learned and discovered about the use of ælfe in the Anglo-Saxon world.

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Originally written on March 3rd 2010 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Sword at Sunset” by Rosemary Sutcliff (Chicago Review Press, 2008)

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The late Rosemary Sutcliff was a prolific writer from the 1950s through the 1970s, publishing a number of children’s books, including the Eagle of the Ninth series and a series of Arthurian novels, as well as over twenty other children’s books on historical subjects.  She also penned nonfiction works and adult fiction, including Sword at Sunset, originally published in 1963 and re-released on May 1st of this year.

Sword at Sunset features an introduction by Canadian author Jack Whyte, writer of the successful Camulod Chronicles, a nine-book series beginning several generations before Arthur was born.  Whyte freely admits that when he first discovered Sword at Sunset it changed his life, which becomes all too clear when one has read both authors.  The characterization, the tone, and the painstaking attention to historical detail and accuracy are prevalent in both works, to the point where one might think Whyte owes Sutcliff more than an introduction and homage.

In Sword at Sunset, Sutcliff creates a world where the Roman legions have left Britain, yet the sense of Romanitas remains strong, especially in the noble characters of Ambrosius and Artos the Bear. They retain not just the armor, style of combat, and the Roman military organization, but a superior, almost arrogant sense of belonging to something that was once great and could be again.  Sutcliff’s early medieval world is not as “dark age” as normally depicted in fiction, but thriving with trade and societal infrastructure across Europe still seemingly intact.  Artos the Bear spends the beginning of the book traveling to southern France where he looks to purchase strong breeds of horses to bring back to Britain to create a strong cavalry force to fight against the invading Anglo Saxons and maintain the British control and rule.

While it is not completely clear how Artos the Bear has risen to such great prominence, he nevertheless has the backing of the people, which spurs him on to defeat the Saxons in many battles.  Sutcliff introduces many familiar characters from the Arthurian world, though there is no Merlin or Lancelot (the latter originally an addition made by Chrétien de Troyes in the twelfth century), but an important appearance is made by Arthur’s incestuous sister Medraut (or Morgan). Sword at Sunset reads like a historical military text with its calculated and descriptive battle scenes that make the world come alive, to the point where the reader may indeed believe such events transpired in the fifth century, leaving the common storylines of romance and chivalry out completely, much as they were in the original time of Arthur.

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

Originally written on July 11th 2008 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Lords of the North” by Bernard Cornwell (Harpercollins, 2007)

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In Lords of the North (coming January 23rd), the wonderful writer of great historical periods and characters brings us the third in his increasingly popular Saxon Chronicles series, as he tells the story of King Alfred the Great’s life and his work in unifying the many kingdoms into the country we know today as England.

We continue with our hero, Uhtred of Bebbanburg, who has just helped Alfred save and maintain control over the land of Wessex, therefore preventing the complete invasion by the Danes.  Angered with Alfred’s piousness and making every decision according to God, Uhtred flees north to Northumbria, still hoping one day to defeat his uncle and take back his beloved Bebbanburg.  It is here that he meets old Danish friends and before he realizes what’s going on, a deal has been brokered to maintain peace in Northumbria in return for Uhtred’s enslavement.  Without his blood-stained blade – Serpent-Breath – the many lords of the region are happy to get rid of this formidable warrior.

Uhtred, stripped of his title and power, then spends most of the book suffering abuse and torture as a slave on a trading vessel traveling along the Flemish coast, and back and forth between Britain and the mainland.  On a number of occasions they face off again this “red ship” that is a trader like them.  Upon returning to the original place where Uhtred was sold – so that more slaves can be bought – the red ship appears out of nowhere and beaches the shore.  Foreign Danes stream out and Uhtred soon finds himself face to face with an even older friend who raised him.

Eventually he discovers that it is thanks to Alfred’s help that he has received his emancipation.  With his title, weapons, and armor restored, along with more allies from the south forming a considerable army, they set out to defeat these lesser heathen lords and regain control of the kingdom of Northumbria.  The book ends with the reader contemplating what is next for Uhtred in the further Saxon Chronicles: Will he regain control of his land?  Will he remain a lone pagan among the many determined Christians?  Sadly, we will have to wait another whole year before we can read more about Uhtred of Bebbanburg, slayer of the great Ubba Lothbrokson, and his adventures with the pious Alfred the Great.

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

Originally written on December 9th, 2006 ©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.