“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.

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

“Saxons, Vikings and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland” by Bryan Sykes (Norton, 2006)

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Bryan Sykes, author of The Seven Daughters of Eve and Adam’s Curse, professor of human genetics at Oxford university; has spent many years of his life studying genes, chromosomes, and DNA, specializing in collecting data from all over the world and tracing ancestral lineages back thousands of years.  Sykes was one of the instrumental geneticists in tracing all Europeans back to seven ancestral women.  From this, Sykes now takes on the challenge of determining the ancestry of the British Isles.  How much Saxon, Viking, and Celtic DNA is left in a modern day Englishman?  Saxons, Vikings, and Celts is a bold and ambitious embarkation that reveals the astounding results of Sykes many years of study; while the facts may present more questions of why than answers, Saxons, Vikings and Celts is one of the most important books of the twenty-first century.

Do not be daunted by the prospect of pages of DNA statistics, Sykes goes out of his way to break everything down and explain it in a detailed and simple way; he even warns the reader before the “part with all the numbers.”  Saxons, Vikings, and Celts apart from being a book about DNA and genetics of the British Isles, is also an amazing source for history.  The first chapter is spent setting the scene with Sykes’ career and research.  Chapter two is one of the most brilliant summaries of British history: from the end of Roman rule, through the history of King Arthur, past each important monarch, on to the present status quo; Sykes has an innate ability for explaining things in a way that make their connections obvious to everyone.  The next few chapters are spent explaining his process for collecting the genetic data throughout the British Isles, first with blood samples from schools and blood banks, and then with plastic brushes that are scraped on the inside of the cheek to get skin samples  — an easier method better received by the people donating their samples.  Sykes then dedicates a chapter for each country covering it’s history of immigration with Celts, Saxons, Vikings, and Normans, with successive chapters covering the genetic correlation of these specific countries.

The last five pages of the book are what the reader has spent the last two hundred and fifty pages reading to get to; here Sykes correlates all the data together and explains the results, which are astonishing to say the least.  They essentially boil down to this: the genetic makeup of the British Isles mainly consists of the Britons and Celts who have lived there for thousands of years, while the invading Saxon, Viking, and Norman people are but a minor percentage of the total.  What does this all mean?  Sadly, Sykes doesn’t really explain this at all – perhaps he is saving it for another book? – nevertheless, the reader is left coming up with his or her own ideas of what these results mean.  Were the invading peoples not that great in number?  Did they not actually settle in such large numbers, as we think?

While Saxons, Vikings, and Celts may not answer every question you have, the facts that it brings to light with the irrefutable certainty of DNA evidence are enough to spend many years contemplating.  Sykes has even started his own company, Oxford Ancestors (www.oxfordancestors.com), where one can sign up and with a sample can have their DNA traced through ancestors who lived, walked, and breathed thousands of years ago.  For those seeking more facts and answers from Saxons, Vikings, and Celts, they should visit www.bloodoftheisles.net.

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

Originally written on February 3rd 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.

“The Kingmaking: Book One of the Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy” by Helen Hollick (Sourcebooks Landmark, 2009)

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Originally published in Britain during the early 1990s, The Kingmaking is the first book in the Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy from British author Helen Hollick.  With the tagline “a novel of Arthur as he really was,” Hollick certainly does her research in bringing to life the possible idea of a war king known as Arthur that would grow to become the magical, immortal legend.

The Arthurian legend is an interesting one that has seen and continues to see countless retellings, due to the fact that there is very little evidence proving the existence of a warrior king known as Arthur; mentions of Merlin and Guenevere are even rarer, while Lancelot is a complete fabrication by Chrétien de Troyes in the twelfth century.  What is known is that the fifth century was a very turbulent time for Britain with the desertion by Rome and its forces; the invasion of the Saxons, Angles, and Jutes; and the invading forces of the Scots and Picts from Ireland and Scotland respectively.  Britain was a melting pot of different peoples, and the Britons were left wondering what to do after being supported and protected for so long by the Romans.  It was in this time – it is thought — at the dawn of the Middle Ages, that a warrior king arose to defend the Britons and lead them to defending their country.

Hollick uses Wales as her setting for Arthur and his people, using Welsh names like Gwenhwyfar (for Guenevere), Cunedda (for Gwenhwyfar’s father), and Uthr (for rightful king of Britain and father to Arthur).  While Camelot is thought to be located near Glastonbury and Tintagel is to be found in Cornwall, with the invading forces pushing the Britons back, Wales was a very likely location for Arthur and his people.  Hollick also uses characters who were known to exist, like Vortigern who supposedly ruled the Britons for some time and was purportedly the one to invite the Germanic forces from the mainland to defend the Britons against the Scots and Picts.  There is Hengest and Horsa, the ruthless Saxon Brothers, Hengest’s daughter Rowena, as well as some of Vortigern’s own offspring, Vortimer, Catigern, and his daughter Winifred.

Hollick writes of a world and life that is becoming somewhat familiar, with the growing genre of medieval historical fiction, joining other epic novels like Pillars of the Earth, World Without End, and Cathedral of the Sea.  These are not the romanticized and glamorous characters of Chrétien de Troyes, Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, or the famous musical Camelot.  It is a cold, harsh world, where much blood is shed and many die.  Hollick does a wonderful job of balancing the narrative with the different characters, and not just keeping it to one person as is common in other Arthurian sagas.  She also maintains the historical accuracy, using the tools and the skills that existed in the world of the fifth century, and yet making The Kingmaking a fast-paced, action-packed start to one of the best Arthurian series to be written.

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

Originally written on March 30th, 2009 ©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.

Wyrd Progress Update VII

Even though its now going on for 2:30AM, as I don’t have work tomorrow, I’m staying up late with everyone else and as they were watching Shaun of the Dead, which I’d seen recently, it made me do some late night or rather early morning writing.  Got a good chunk done and now the readers will know more of my main character’s meetings with the Saxons.  And just clocked 50 pages and on to Chapter III: Equus!

And now for some work in progress:

In fact most Saxons are illiterate and appear to have no need for recording any matters or deeds on parchment.  But their knowledge is still vast, which is kept, as I said, orally through the people, in each family past down from one generation to the next.  In this way the important rules, as well as knowledge of their customs and ways of farming and hunting and gathering are past on and the way of life is never lost.  At times I admit to being really impressed with this system, and while recording ideas on parchment can lead to their lasting for centuries, if the page is burned, soaked, or destroyed in some way, it is gone.  While when it is passed down to each family member, should one or more of them pass from this world, the knowledge is not lost, but maintained through its other members.

WORDS: 1216

PAGES: 5 1/3