Tag Archives: Uhtred

“The Burning Land,” by Bernard Cornwell

14 Jun

“The Burning Land,” by Bernard Cornwell (378p)

In the fifth installment of British author Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon stories, The Burning Land, Lord Uhtred of Bebbanburg continues his fight for Alfred of Wessex, bound by oath. It is 893 and the Danes are massing again, planning yet another invasion of the Saxon lands in their never ending dream of conquering England for themselves.

(plot summary from Wikipedia)
At Alfred’s behest, Uhtred delivers a message to Haesten that Wessex would pay a ransom for Haesten to leave. Alfred cannot attack Haesten, because another Dane, Harald Bloodhair, has attacked at Cent. Haesten and Alfred reach an accord, and Haesten leaves hostages and accepts missionaries. The Jarl even undergoes baptism. However, Uhtred knows that the hostages are fake and that if Harald defeats Alfred, Haesten will attack London. While travelling to meet Alfred, now free to lead an army against Harald, Uhtred captures Skade, Harald’s woman. Skade is a formidable fighter in her own right, and leads one of Harald’s war parties. She and her party are captured while raiding a Mercian village. However, Harald approaches Uhtred leading a line of Saxon captive women, and threatens to kill all of them if Skade is not returned to him. After he butchers one woman in front of her child, Uhtred releases Skade to him. Skade intones an ominous curse against Uhtred as she and Harold make their escape. Uhtred and his men, however, defeat Harald’s forces at Farnham, and again take Skade prisoner. Harald is severely wounded, but escapes to Torneie Island (Thorney Island). There, with few followers, he is able to use the island’s natural defences, and a palisade he builds to repel later attempts to defeat him. However, he is trapped there.

While celebrating the Saxon victory at Farnham, Uhtred is devastated by news that his beloved wife, Gisela, has died in childbirth, along with the child she bore. When Uhtred and Skade return to London, Alfred’s advisor, Brother Asser (whose dislike of Uhtred long predates this story) uses the mad brother Godwin to denounce Gisela’s name, ranting that Gisela was the devil’s whore, and has come back from the dead as Skade. Uhtred flies into a rage and kills Godwin, though he says that he only meant to silence him. Retreating back to his house, Uhtred’s old mentor, Father Boecca, tells him that Alfred has ordered Uhtred to pay a huge fine and swear an oath to Alfred’s son Edward the Æthling. Alfred holds Uhtred’s children as hostage to his terms, and places them in the custody of Æthelflaed, Alfred’s daughter and wife of Aelthelred, the ealdorman of Mercia. Furious, Uhtred reneges on his oath to Alfred and sails, with Skade, to his old friend Ragnar. Uhtred trusts Æthelflaed to protect his children.

Eager to use his newfound freedom and encouraged by Skade, Uhtred goes Viking. He sails to loot, kill and plunder Skirnir, Skade’s husband, and on the journey, he and Skade become lovers. After he defeats and kills Skirnir, however, he is disappointed when Skirnir’s treasure horde fails to meet his expectations. When Skade demands half of the horde as her share, Uhtred denies it to her. From that point on Skade becomes enemy to Uhtred. Sailing back to Ragnar’s fortress, Uhtred winters there. During that winter, Brida, Uhtred’s former lover who is now Ragnar’s wife, convinces Ragnar to attack Wessex alongside the other Northumbrian lords, Cnut and Sigrid. During the meeting, Haesten arrives and declares that he will attack Mercia. Haesten and Skade become infatuated with each other, and when Haesten leaves, Skade goes with him. Uhtred is caught in a conflict of loyalties, between the Danes with whom he was raised, and his oaths to Alfred and Æthelflaed. He also fears for his children’s safety, as they are in Mercia, in Æthelflaed’s custody. His indecision is broken when his friend, the Welshman Father Pyrlig arrives. Pyrlig reminds Uhtred that he has given his oath to serve Æthelflaed. Uhtred is reluctant at first, until Father Pyrlig tells him that “oaths made in love cannot be broken”.

Uhtred goes to serve Æthelflaed. He first has to rescue her from Lord Aldhem. Æthelred, Æthelflaed’s husband, wishes to divorce her, to break free of Alfred’s influence over Mercia. He directs Aldhem to have sex with Æthelflaed, either by seduction, or failing that, by force. Either act would make her an adulterer, allowing Æthelred to divorce her. Uhtred kills Aldhem, liberates Æthelflaed, and reunites with his children. He and Æthelflaed then go to Æthelred’s council, surprising him before the assembled Mercian lords. Warning of Haesten’s advance, Æthelflaed tries to win the Mercian lords to her side. She and Uhtred then wait at London for support. However, because Æthelred holds their purse-strings, none of the lords come, except for Lord Ælfwold. During this wait, Uhtred and Æthelflaed become lovers. Uhtred also learns that Alfred had advised Æthelflaed to use Uhtred’s oath to her to bring him back. Eventually, Edward Ætheling arrives, along with Alfred’s retainer and Uhtred’s friend Steapa, and an army of twelve hundred of Alfred’s best house troops. They also bear a message that Uhtred is to give his oath to Edward. Uhtred promptly refuses.

Thus reinforced, Uhtred marches ahead to Haesten’s two forts at Baemfleot (Benfleet), although Haesten is not there. Uhtred encounters and attacks a larger Danish force and is surrounded. He nearly loses the battle and his life, but is saved and the battle won by the timely arrival of Steapa and the rest of Alfred’s troops. They proceed to capture the first of the forts. Uhtred makes preparations for the next battle and begins teaching Edward how to lead from the front. Uhtred assaults the fort and scales the ditch, using sails with ropes sown into them to provide sure footing on the slippery ditch. He tries to use ladders to get up the wall, but the first assault fails. His second assault ultimately succeeds after Father Pyrlig throws specially prepared beehives onto the walls. The bees distract the defenders so that Uhtred’s force can scale the walls and capture the fort. In the hall Uhtred finds Skade and a horde of gold. Harald Bloodhair, crippled and vengeful over Skade’s betrayal with Haesten, suddenly appears, embraces Skade, and kills her at the same time. He then asks Uhtred to kill him. Uhtred does, then meets with Edward who says that he doesn’t need Uhtred’s oath as long as his sister has it. Uhtred and Æthelflaed then sail away from Baemfleot on the Thames.

I had been waiting for The Burning Land for some time, for this is one of my favourite series I have ever read. Partially because one of my relatives spent most of her retirement researching my family’s history and she researched that my family was one of the Danes that conquered northern England at this time, and I have ploughed through the first four in the series. So the excitement to read it was certainly high and I couldn’t wait for the paperback release in May. The Burning Land did not disappoint either – another fantastic addition to a great series of books by the prolific Cornwall. Uhtred’s story continues to weave its way across the turbulent early history of the land that would be England in its own special way. Uhtred is a much different man than the one from the first few novels. Now, as an adulthood, he is a shrewd calculated leader that commands Alfred’s war efforts against the Danes. As a character it has been a joy to see him grow – he is no longer reckless, or as reckless as he used to be, and his strategic moves involve a lot more thinking, planning and stealth. That’s fun to read, meaning that there is more to the action side of things in these books than merely a crash, bam, stab and slash Uhtred’s earlier fights where he used little-to-no finesse and deception.

Of course, I thoroughly enjoyed The Burning Land. Alfred of Wessex had two goals in life – the Christianisation of England and the unification of the petty English kingdoms1 under one king in a land free of pagans and Danes. That story was firmly continued in this novel as the Saxons went on the offensive against two huge Danish armies, once again destroying their power bases in the south and staving off any possibility of defeat. As a read, this is superb, and follows the (admittedly somewhat standard) Cornwell style of a cracking action-adventure tale with strong characters and story, ferocious enemies, newfound love and loss. The action is well told and helps to complete the tale of England’s oft forgotten past (why do people think English history begins in 1066?) by painting the picture of two of the most important battles in the Saxon-Danish war. But it’s also enjoyable for the evolution of Uhtred’s own story and his quest to capture the lands that belong to him by birth, and I think readers of the series will find that particularly enjoyable. As I have said before, I heartily recommend this series for anyone a fan of Cornwell, action-adventure and war-based historical fiction, pre-Norman English history and the Vikings. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it as much as I have.

And so the wait for book six begins …

8.5/10.

1 these were Wessex (England’s south and south-west), Mercia (England’s midlands, west and London), East Anglia (England’s east) and Northumbria (the north to Scotland). Originally, Wessex (which eventually absorbed Sussex and Essex) was the land of Saxons, while Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria comprised of Angles and Jutes that joined the Saxons during the Anglo-Saxon conquest of Britain centuries before. At the time of The Burning Land Wessex was the only wholly Saxon kingdom, Mercia was divided by the Danes and Saxons and under Alfred’s control, while East Anglia and Northumbria were firmly Danish territories. The modern town of York evolved from the Danish Jorvik.

“Sword Song,” by Bernard Cornwell

1 Nov

“Sword Song,” by Bernard Cornwell (360p)

The most recent novel in Bernard Cornwell’s current series, the Saxon Stories, is Sword Song. Written in 2007, this fourth in the series takes fictional protagonist Uhtred of Bebbanburg yet again away form his homeland of Northumbria to the future capital of England, London, while Alfred the Great begins his quest to unite the English kingdoms and free the country of its Danish invaders, in the year 888.

London is a city in a unique situation in 888: it belongs to neither Alfred nor the Danes, for the city straddles both the Wessex, East Anglian and Mercian borders, but officially falls under the jurisdiction of Mercia. But Mercia is a kingdom of two halves where the Danes control the north while Saxons loyal to Alfred have the south. It is obviously in the interests of both sides to secure the largest city in the country and Uhtred is Alfred’s man. But the Danes also want Uhtred on their side, for he is a man with a great reputation across England. Uhtred’s nemesis Haesten returns with a trick of a message from beyond the grave and Uhtred is partially swayed because his loyalty to Alfred is quite thin, so Uhtred allows Haesten to introduce him to a pair of Norse brothers, Sigefrid and Erik, with the same ambition of making Mercia theirs. He seems to be falling for the idea of the Norsemen until they force an old friend of Uhtred’s into a fight to the death, and Uhtred leaves with much to ponder.

His oath to Alfred is called upon again as Alfred asks him to formally take back London into Saxon Mercian hands again; hands connected to the arm of his disliked cousin Æthelred. Uhtred’s surprise attack by boat catches the city garrison unawares and the Danes inside become wedged between Uhtred’s army inside the city and Æthelred’s Mercian fyrd coming the opposite way. Sigefrid, the Norse leader, is left permanently injured when Alfred’s bastard son Osferth leaps off the city wall and lands on top of him, crippling the Norseman terribly. With London back in Saxon hands again the Danes return to the safety of East Anglia. After a few months of quietness, Æthelred begins to get ambitious in his bid to completely control Mercia. He launches a sea raid on the Danes hideout which goes well until Æthelred becomes a little too ambitious and the Danes strikeback, capturing the prized asset of Æthelflæd – not only is she Æthelred’s wife but also the daughter of Alfred.

Uhtred is then sent on behalf of Alfred to buy back his daughter’s freedom at whatever cost. When he returns to the camp of the Danes he learns something very interesting about the King’s daughter, that she had fallen in love with Erik, and so Uhtred tries to arrange a dangerously deceptive plot to free Æthelflæd and allow her to run away with Erik with neither Alfred, Sigefrid or any of his oathsworn men knowing. But his attempts to free Æthelflæd quietly into the night go awry and a fierce battle breaks out in the sea and on marshland between Saxon and Dane. They fight on boats rammed into each other, on marshland and in the water. In the mayhem of a fight with no idea of who was fighting who, somehow, Uhtred’s men manage to come out on top and rescue Æthelflæd and crucially they also destroy one more enemy in the way of Alfred’s dream of creating a peaceful, Christian and lawful England free of outside Danish invaders.

As it is stated in the author note at the end, Sword Song is almost entirely fictional because it covers a few years of relative harmony between the Saxons and Danes. I think the main point of the novel is to show Uhtred in a new light as a grown up mature adult whose life has more to it than just being at the centre of a shield wall. He learns to govern, he learns how to play politician and he learns how to suffer grievances without immediately resorting to violence. In an ironic way, he becomes more of what Alfred would prefer to see in his nobles. But at the same time Uhtred is still every bit the brave, fearless and dangerous killer he was as a teenager. He is just a little wiser and smarter now, perhaps those two years on the slave ship weren’t so bad for him after all?

I liked Sword Song quite a bit. It follows the same trend of the other three with the trademark trappings of a Bernard Cornwell novel – lots of dashing and perilous action, strong characterisation, a fiendish villain and a big fight at the end. It ticks all those boxes and makes for a nice, quick and easy read that shouldn’t take more than a few enjoyable days. In addition, like The Lords of the North, some fans will be a tad disappointed that Alfred is often conspicuous by his absent. But that is also the point of it, too, because making Uhtred in effect Governor of London would mean he has some degree of autonomous freedom and the king is bound to leave him alone for periods of time. Alfred’s aim was to unite England and the real point of Sword Song is to begin that unofficial unification of Wessex and Mercia with Alfred’s people at the top. The slow process of creating England had properly begun during this book and will really take shape in the next one. It is just a shame I have to wait until 2010 to read it …

8/10.

“The Lords of the North,” by Bernard Cornwell

30 Oct

“The Lords of the North,” by Bernard Cornwell (377p)

The Lords of the North is the third novel in Bernard Cornwell’s newest series, the Saxon Stories, about a fictitious displaced lord sworn to fight for Alfred the Great in the great struggle against the Danes of 9th century England. Beginning where The Pale Horseman finished, this third edition in a planned eight or nine part series takes place from 878 to 881.

In the southern lands, Saxon and Dane are at peace again after the bloody fight at Edington. Guthrum, the Danish King of East Anglia, has even converted to Christianity to make sure Wessex under its pious king Alfred will not break the peace. With peace assured, Uhtred finally frees himself from Alfred’s chafing Wessex court and returns to Northumbria to begin his bid to reclaim his lost birth-right, the impressive fortress of Bebbanburg and his title as the Earldorman of that fortress. Arriving in Eoferwic (modern York), he is surprised to find out that the city has been taken back by Saxons, and he helps Danish civilians escape any reprisals against them by the victorious Saxons. The rest of England is relatively stable: Wessex under the steady hand of Alfred the Great, East Anglia under the now subjugated Guthrum and Mercia split in co-existing peaceful halves along Saxon-Danish lines. Northumbria, though, is nothing more than a series of warring towns and fortresses with differing lords vying for complete control of the kingdom.

Uhtred soon encounters his childhood enemy, Sven the One-Eyed, who terrorises the Northumbrian peasantry as his father is the Lord of Dunholm (modern Durham). Uhtred dreams up an attack on Sven, pretending to be a supernatural rider dressed in black with unworldly abilities with the sword. He humiliates Sven and scares him off but also frees a Danish lord claiming to be the rightful King of Northumbria, Guthred. Guthred convinces Uhtred he is indeed the King of Northumbria and Uhtred becomes his chief advisor and helps Guthred establish a powerbase across the southern half of Northumbria. He also falls in love with Guthred’s sister, Gisela, but their romance comes to a crushing halt when Uhtred is betrayed by Guthred, his head being sold to his treacherous uncle Ælfric and Danish lord Ivar Ivarrsson (son of Ivar the Boneless) with the help of monks. Guthred sees Uhtred cast onto a slave ship as a rower, his fate left unknown.

Uhtred spends two years on the slave ship and sees a world outside of England for the first time. He goes to the far north seas and sees an island covered in ice (Iceland, I imagine) and then to continental Europe, spending a winter in Jutland where the Danes that hadn’t come to England now live. The slave ship, which also functions as a merchantman, returns to East Anglia in 871 and Uhtred thinks himself doomed when the slave ship is stormed by a vengeful Sven the One-Eyed. But Uhtred is suddenly saved by a ship commanded by Ragnar, paid by Alfred the Great to rescue Uhtred from his captivity. Uhtred returns to Northumbria with a vengeance and takes out his revenge on Guthred and his co-conspirators who sold out to Ælfric. He seems destined to return to Wessex, though, with no future to be found in Northumbria and no chance of taking back Bebbanburg until he and Ragnar learn that Kjartan, the man responsible for Ragnar the Elder’s death, has sent his men out from the fortress of Dunholm to attack Guthred in Eowferic, meaning he is weakened.

They then discover that Thyra, Ragnar’s younger sister, had been held captive there and tortured by Kjartan and Sven. So to rescue her and take their blood-feud revenge on Kjartan the two launch a daring attack on the fortress, only narrowly escaping with Thyra but ultimately defeating Kjartan and Sven. But while Uhtred and Ragnar had been busy assaulting Dunholm Ivar Ivarrsson had marched south again from the very north of Northumbria with his army. Ivar was attempting to snatch the crown of Northumbria from under the feet of an absent of Guthred, but his audacious bid ended up being scuppered in a showdown with Uhtred.

I find it hard to review The Lords of the North for a few reasons. I certainly enjoyed the novel and flew through it in no time. I liked the plot for this third edition in the Saxon Stories and enjoyed seeing Uhtred return to the wild north of England. I liked the politics of it all and really was surprised when Uhtred had been thrown into the hands of a slave trader – I certainly didn’t see that coming. But for some reason the ending of the novel made me feel a little … eh, is how I’d describe it. It just felt a little rushed and convenient in the way it was executed, and I rather did think the way Sven was defeated was a bit rubbish. Maybe Cornwell had a deadline to meet? I don’t know, but for whatever reason, the ending felt like it could have been a little more thrilling and spectacular.

The ending is about the only complaint I have from the novel. As I said, I really did like it for the most part, and heartily recommend those who enjoy Cornwell’s novels or the previous two in the series to read it as it is a great and easy read. It is full of action, the plot is quite good with lots of twists and surprise turns, and the scenery is very evocative. Lastly, as I mentioned in the The Pale Horseman review, much of Alfred’s brilliant kingship often goes missing because of the first person narrative, but in this one the proper subtlety of his workings in the fractured England come to the fore, and you will marvel at the way Cornwell works that in – it was some very good writing. The slightly disappointing conclusion aside, this is a fantastic book.

8/10.

“The Pale Horseman,” by Bernard Cornwell

27 Oct

“The Pale Horseman,” by Bernard Cornwell (409p)

In the sequel to Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories, depicting to the 9th century war between Saxon and Dane over the land that would become England, is The Pale Horseman. The sequel takes place immediately after The Last Kingdom, beginning in 876 and ending two years later in 878, and is set against Alfred the Great’s darkest hours in the Swamps of Athelney and the Battle of Edington.

Uhtred, the displaced Earldorman of Bebbanburg, is bored with the peace agreed between the Danes and Wessex. He frees himself from the insufferable piety and laws of Alfred’s realm and his wife’s household and commandeers a boat, deciding to go raiding off the Cornish coast. He gets into a scrape with a Welsh king named Peredur and carries off with his wife, Iseult but an acidic monk named Asser escapes to Wales, he would come back to haunt Uhtred. On his return he faces attack from Norse raiders and decides to ally himself with a Dane, Svein the White Horse to beat off the Norse. After they part their ways Uhtred returns to the Welsh coast and conducts another raid, capturing a huge hoard of treasure that he uses to pay off his wife’s debts. He also rescues a young Dane, Haesten, from being killed.

On his return Uhtred is charged by the Witan, which is more or less an early form of parliament, for using a royal vessel to incite war from the Welsh, who Wessex is at peace with. Uhtred is determined to prove his innocence, however, and challenges the strongest warrior in the employ of the Earldorman of Wessex, Steapa. But as they duel all of Cippanhamm (modern Chippenham) is caught unawares, for Danish lord Guthrum had broken the peace and attacked. The city scatters and Uhtred, together with his friend Leofric and Iseult, hide in a field until returning in the night to rescue Eanflæd the whore at a tavern and a nun, Hild. They steal away in the night and wander about a devastated Wessex for a few weeks until stumbling upon the remnants of Alfred’s court, deep in hiding in the Swamps of Athelney, a shattered remain of the last great kingdom of the Saxons.

For nearly a year Alfred hid in the swamps, protected by the many confusing estuaries and lagoons of the swamp. Uhtred becomes his bodyguard, effectively his leading warrior, charged to protect the king but also to do the best he can in hurting the marauding Danes. He destroys a small fleet and drowns several hundred warriors in a daring attack against the tide. Uhtred amuses himself with small raids and fights, but life in the huts in the swamp is miserable for him. Alfred’s wife, Ælswith, hates Uhtred and his pagan ways, and she makes life difficult for them so he tries to spend as little time with the royal family as possible. Alfred, meanwhile, has been hard at work trying to raise the fyrd, the peasant army of his shattered kingdom. Slowly, though, the great lords of Wessex come back to Alfred’s banner and his once great army comes back together. Despite being cautious, Alfred decides to fight back – the Battle of Edington is on.

In the most decisive battle of Alfred’s war against the Danes, Uhtred somewhat reluctantly fights to save his kingdom. If he loses, Wessex would completely fall and Alfred and his family would be forced into exile in Frankia, meaning the Danes would rule all of England. Uhtred is actually not that bothered with the idea of an Alfred-less England for he had been annoyed beyond belief of spending a year with him and his piety, and would find a Danish ruled England more to his liking, for all Uhtred really wanted was to return to Northumbria and claim his birth-rate. So, Uhtred fights the bloodiest battle of his life, and the Saxons overwhelm the Danes on the hill at Edington, forcing Guthrum to flee. Wessex is saved and the Danes are forced to retreat to their kingdoms in East Anglia and Mercia, their first thrust into Wessex defeated, leaving Uhtred with unfinished business in Northumbria.

I think for a lot of fans and reviewers, The Pale Horseman is the weakest in the as yet incomplete Saxon Stories series. While the story of Uhtred’s escapades off Cornwall and Wales, his trial in front of the Witan, the surprise attack by Guthrum and the Battle of Edington were up to the usual Cornwell standards in being well told in an action-packed rollercoaster way. But the middle of the novel is just … the word I want to use is boring, but I feel plodding is more appropriate. The middle, with Alfred kicking about in the swamp, could have taken far less space in the novel. I realise Cornwell had an entire year to deal with, but a lot of it could have been cut out. It just felt like I wanted to say “come on!” and wanted it to get to the good stuff at the end, the Cornwell trademark of the big bloody battle.

As it is, The Pale Horseman is a good enough read. It tells a good enough story and I did enjoy it for the most part. It is a typical Bernard Cornwell read and as always, you know what you’re going to get. I feel, much as he did in the first novel, Cornwell displayed Alfred’s ability as a king in a very subtle way. The limitations of first person narrative mean that he can only show as much as Uhtred may have seen, but he worked around it and slowly through the 200+ pages of the year in the swamp, you see Alfred putting his kingdom back together. Another thing that I did enjoy is the way Uhtred becomes fully attached to Alfred, despite his misgivings and irritation of being around such a religious man. It is obvious that the hero grows to respect his overlord a great deal by the end of this novel.

For fans of Bernard Cornwell, or indeed the early Middle Ages, and those who enjoyed the first novel, by all means read it. I think in that respect it can only work in the scope of the series – if you don’t want to read the first novel and the rest, it’s probably a better idea to find something else to read instead as I don’t think this works as a stand-alone read.

7/10.

“The Last Kingdom,” by Bernard Cornwell

27 Oct

“The Last Kingdom,” by Bernard Cornwell (327p)

The newest series from popular British author Bernard Cornwell is set against the backdrop of the turbulent 9th and 10th centuries in the land that would eventually become England. Beginning in 866, it tells the story of a fictitious young boy named Uhtred who was one of the great warriors and earls of the time as he deals with the impending Danish conquest of Saxon lands across England. The Last Kingdom takes place from 866 to 876, concluding with the Battle of Cannington.

Ten year old Osbert is the younger son of the Earldorman of Bebbanburg, Uhtred, in Northumbria. But when Danish invaders arrive, they kill Osbert’s older brother, making Osbert the new Uhtred. To get revenge for his first sons death the Earldorman Uhtred leads a raid against the Danes in Eoferwic (modern York), but he is killed and the younger Uhtred is taken prisoner. Uhtred is surprised to find that he likes life among the Danes with their wildness and no Christianity, but is also angered when he learns that his uncle, Ælfric, has usurped Bebbanburg and the earldorman title himself. He forces himself to bide his time, though, as he is still a child and a prisoner of the Danish earl Ragnar, and Bebbanburg is also seen to be the most impregnable fortress in all of England. Uhtred quickly becomes friends with Ragnar’s sons Ragnar the Younger and Rorik and also the enemy of Sven, the son of Ragnar’s shipmaster Kjartan. Their rivalry comes to ahead when Uhtred catches Sven attempting to indecently assault Ragnar’s youngest daughter, Thyra, and attacks him. He alerts Ragnar and the earl banishes Kjartan and his son, taking his eye as a prize.

The Danes launch their first southern thrust to capture the rest of the English kingdoms – Northumbria was already theirs and soon Mercia and East Anglia fell under the leadership of brothers Ivar the Boneless and Ubba. Uhtred then travels into Wessex, the last remaining Saxon kingdom, to spy for the Danes. But he is taken captive by his fathers old priest, Father Beocca, and accidentally meets the future Alfred the Great in a moment of weakness. Uhtred quickly escapes from Wessex and returns to the Danish camp as he prefers the life there – there is more freedom, less piety and more fun for him. He feels at home with the Danes.

Uhtred’s world is again turned upside down when Kjartan returns for revenge on Ragnar. Uhtred is forced to flee and returns to Wessex with no other choice. He is forced to learn to read and write (Uhtred thinks this is pointless) for Alfred, the new King of Wessex, to allow him to command warriors, his birth-right. Uhtred hates life among the Saxons again and chafes under their rules and piety, and can’t wait to begin his life as a warrior. But Alfred has one more surprise for Uhtred – he won’t let him command unless he marries, and so Uhtred is forced to wed Mildrith, a plain and pious West Saxon with massive debts owed to a landlord. He takes command during a siege against Danish lord Guthrum the Unlucky but the siege fails, and for the third time in his life Uhtred becomes a prisoner. While captive Uhtred meets Ragnar the Younger again, and they renew their friendship, helping Uhtred escape (again) back to Wessex. His wife had been taken by another earldorman, Odda, north so he heads there and meets up with Saxon forces commanded by Odda about to fight a battle at a fort named Cynwit against the Danes, led by Ubba. Uhtred seizes the chance to fight in his first proper shield wall – a symbol of honour – and his showdown with Ubba ends the novel.

The first thing many long-term Bernard Cornwell fans think when they read this is how similar to his Arthur series it is. I was the same, as I read those first, and the similarities are quite obvious for all to see. Uhtred and Derfel, the protagonist in that series, are both orphans and grow up among people not their own (Derfel is a Saxon living among Britons, Uhtred a Saxon living among Danes), both become brave famous warriors and commanders key to the success of their king. The basic plot – defending England from an invading enemy – is also the same, but those basic similarities end there. In later books, which I have read and will get reviews up soon, Uhtred becomes a far more ruthless warrior with little sentimentality, he is far more likely to kill outside of battle than Derfel is. Uhtred also has Sharpe’s tendency to be turned by anything with a pretty face whereas Derfel was entirely faithful to his wife in those stories. What I am getting at is that likely Cornwell drew inspiration from the Arthur novels with the plot and basic nuances of the novels, but Uhtred is still very much his own character and entirely different from Derfel.

The other bone of contention from Cornwell’s newest series is the portrayal of Alfred the Great. In later books he is described as being a weak man too concerned with priests and religion than the matter at hand, destroying the Danes. This is a fallacy of first-person narrative and Alfred, who was undoubtedly a brilliant leader in his own way, is shown negatively because Uhtred cannot stand his piety and rules. In that regard, it is up to the reader to make up their own mind on Cornwell’s Alfred. Subtlety, though, I think in the future novels you can see just how good a king Alfred was. He just does it mixed in between Uhtred’s narrative. It is subtle, but it is certainly there and you just have to read between the lines. Another thing to consider is that Uhtred is still very young in this, he only turns eighteen at the end of the novel, so he is very much a stereotypical headstrong bull of a young man eager to fight.

So, recommendations. The Last Kingdom is more or less the same as any Bernard Cornwell novel – fast paced, lots of action, blood curdling fighting, evocative scenery, a good villain and the presence of a heroine. For some people it may seem same-same but I loved this novel despite its arguable debating points. I loved the quick ebb and flow of the story as it barnstorms across 9th century Anglo-Saxon England, the action and the way Cornwell brings the era alive. As I have often said in my reviews, these sorts of novels are everything I look for in a read – to be amused and entertained, to escape and have some fun. That is why I recommend anyone to read it for something to do, but if you are looking for serious reads, go elsewhere. Otherwise sit back and enjoy Uhtred’s ride!

8.5/10.

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