“Britain Begins” by Barry Cunliffe (Oxford University Press, 2012)

Britain Begins
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The settling of the islands that would one day come to be known as Great Britain is one of the most fascinating times of history, as so much of what would become Western Europe was shaped and formed by these early periods and yet it is also one of the lesser known periods of history. But thanks to numerous advancements and discoveries made in the fields of archaeology and genetics, Barry Cunliffe brings readers the new definitive text on the founding of a nation, people and culture.

Cunliffe is a renowned British professor who has specialized in archaeology and is known for his excellent history books on early Britain and Europe, including The Ancient Celts, Facing the Ocean and Between the Oceans. In Britain Begins, he takes readers far back, starting with the myths and ancestors of Britain and then leading into shortly after the end of the last ice age, when the freezing waters retreated and Britain became an island once again. He then takes the reader down a detailed and fascinating history road addressing who the ancient Britons were, the settling of the Celts, on through the Roman invasion and ruling period, up to the Anglo-Saxon and then Norman invasions.

It is rare to see a book that ends with the battle of Hastings and William the Conqueror, but this is not just any history book. Scholars and fans of the history will both delight in owning Britain Begins with its detailed text, numerous photos and illustrations lending visual proof and answers to a period that up until now has remained relatively unknown.

Originally written on March 24, 2014 ©Alex C. Telander.

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“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

“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.

“The Vikings: A History” by Robert Ferguson (Viking, 2009)

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There have been many books written on the Vikings, and everyone has their own stereotypical – and in most cases, inaccurate – idea of who the Vikings were and what they were like; media has done much to reaffirm these clichés.  Thankfully, there is The Vikings: A History by a “leading authority in the field of Scandinavian studies,” Robert Ferguson.  Ferguson puts all the misconceived and incorrect notions of Vikings to rest, launching into a comprehensive history of these northern peoples and what affect they had on Europe from the eighth centuries on through the first millennium.  Ferguson pulls from many sources, and presents not just the viewpoint of the Vikings and their achievements, but also short histories on the northern British Isles, Charlemagne, and the various kingdoms of the European continent, showing how greatly affected they were by the Viking attacks and takeovers.  The Vikings: A History will clear away the image of a horn-helmeted brute and replace it with a developed, complex culture that was intelligent and creative, and had reasons for the attacks against the various peoples of Europe.

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

Originally written on January 15th 2010 ©Alex C. Telander.

Originally published in the Sacramento Book Review.

“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.

“Northlanders Volume 2: The Cross + The Hammer” by Brian Wood and Davide Gianfelice (Vertigo, 2009)

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Wood continues his powerful Northlanders series in this second volume, after Sven the Returned, with a look at two cultures fighting over one piece of land.  The year is 1014, the place is Ireland.  The Vikings have invaded, quickly taking over and subjugating most of the people, claiming what they consider to be rightfully theirs.  But there are some who disagree, including one hero, Magnus, who seeks to wipe out any Vikings he sees, while doing what he must to protect his precious daughter.  Magnus is a powerful warrior, who seems unstoppable, yet his one failing may be that he has lost his mind.  But Lord Ragnar Ragnarsson thinks little of this, stopping at nothing to end Magnus and clear the way for a full Viking conquest.

In The Cross + The Hammer, Wood takes a brief break from his main character, Sven, to address another part of the world where the Vikings are making themselves known.  Even with a different artist, the work is fresh and interesting,  maintaining an acuteness to detail and accuracy, while Wood does his work in telling a story that may well have happened at some time in the eleventh century.

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

Originally written on August 22nd, 2009 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Northlanders Volume 1: Sven the Returned” by Brian Wood and Davide Gianfelice (Vertigo, 2008)

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In a new graphic novel series from Brian Wood, author of DMZ and Demo, and illustrated by Davide Gianfelice, comes Northlanders Volume 1: Sven the Returned. Northlanders offers up a fresh historical graphic novel, like that of Eric Shanower’s Age of Bronze and Warren Ellis’ Crecy, as Wood brings the world of the Vikings to light with the detailed and gory art style of Gianfelice.

Sven is a disowned Viking.  After his father is killed when he is a boy, and, as the heir apparent, he dishonors his mother by not protecting and defending her from his uncle Gorm who rapes her and takes control of the people and holdings, Sven flees from the north lands.  He is captured and made a slave for most of his childhood until he is set free and refers to himself as a Varangian: a Norseman who has left his home.  He spends his years in the great city of Constantinople as a member of the Royal Guard, until he is ready and returns to the north for revenge.  The year is 980.

His old home is in the Orkney Islands, and he finds it not much changed from when he left, but having lived in Constantinople for so long, he must learn to live in the harsh climes once again.  He also must gain the respect of his people.  Sven begins fighting back against Gorm, employing all the skill and knowledge he has gained.  The question is when he finally defeats Gorm and restores his family’s honor, will he still want to be king and rule?

Northlanders is a fresh historical graphic novel that is a little shaky at first with this new storyline, but there is good character development and potential for the future volumes.  With a fresh art style that captures the tone of the period, as well as being accurately detailed through the art, Northlanders is a series I look forward to reading in volume 2: The Cross + The Hammer.

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

Originally written on November 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.

01/28 On the Bookshelf . . .

Elves

Today I received a copy of Elves in Anglo-Saxon England by Alaric Hall.  I know, I know.  This is not your usual book to exist, let alone want a copy of.  But it does not assume by any means that elves were alive and well in Anglo-Saxon times, but explores the meaning and reason for the concept of elves existing, more as a pre-Christian concept, as well as comparing it medieval Irish and Scandinavian sources .  Plus, the author’s name — Alaric — is wonderfully medieval in its own right.

So, thank you to Boydell & Brewer for sending a copy and I look forward to reviewing it.

Medieval history is one of my passions (I’m even writing a book within this period!) and so every once in a while I’ll review a very unusual book on this period.  The last one that I can bring to memory is The Age of Sutton Hoo (from the same publisher), though I have reviewed a number of medieval history and nonfiction books in the past, including: Vikings, Saxons, and Celts, God’s Crucible, Mysteries of the Middle Ages, Barbarians to Angels, and The Inheritance of Rome.