“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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“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.