“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.