“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.