“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.

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