You guys, I can’t even tell you how excited I was to hear that Bernard Cornwell has a new book out in the Saxon Stories. Therefore, I’m going to do a build up to the new release. It’s been so long since I read these stories, that I can only vaguely remember where I left off, so we’ll start at Book 3, Lords of the North. For those who are curious about the first two books (The Last Kingdom and The Pale Horseman), I remember enjoying them immensely and would rate them each 4 ink bottles.
Lords of the North
Upon finishing this story, I realized that I’d read it before, but a sufficient amount of time had passed that the details had become murky in my mind and I found that I enjoyed the book this time just as much as I did the first time. I don’t know what it is about the no nonsense demeanor of Vikings, but I just can’t get enough of it, whether it be Cornwell’s Danes or Flanagan’s Skandians. There’s something about their outlook on life that appeals to the core of me and I eat it up every time. Surrounded by that kind of boisterous practicality, Uhtred embarks on a spectacularly enthralling journey. Cornwell, once again, creates a world of intricate detail, but with such earth moving tension that you’ll be at the last page before you know it.
The year is 878. Uhtred, the dispossessed son of a Northumbrian lord, has helped the Saxons of Wessex defeat the invading Danes. Now, finally free of his allegiance to the victorious, ungrateful King Alfred, he is heading home to rescue his stepsister, a prisoner of Kjartan the Cruel in the formidable Danish stronghold of Dunholm. Uhtred’s best hope is his sword, Serpent-Breath, for his only allies are Hild, a West Saxon nun fleeing her calling, and Guthred, a slave who believes himself king. Rebellion, chaos, fear, and betrayal await them in the north, forcing Uhtred to turn once more, reluctantly, to the liege he formerly served in battle and blood: Alfred the Great.
I don’t know why, but one of my favorite things about this series is the juxtaposition of the elaborate ceremonies of the Christian priests against the rugged practicality of the Norse mythos. Admittedly, I’m naturally inclined to doubt what priests preach, especially when they are whipped into a frenzy (as Cromwell’s priests frequently are), but Cromwell places the two together in such an effortless way that I don’t feel like I’m being biased when I’m feeling particularly revolted at a priest’s frothing. I also love this because prior to reading this series, I had always assumed that Britons had gone straight from Celtic paganism to Christianity. I had no idea there was this brief layover in Norse legend with people wearing Thor’s hammer and priests railing against Britons who were that variety of pagan. This is part of the reason I read historical fiction. Yes, the author uses their imagination to fill in the gaps of history or to lay a fictional character on top of well documented historical events, but everything else (particularly with Bernard Cornwell) is very well researched and historically accurate.
In terms of characters, Cornwell has always written characters that I fall in love with and never because they’re classically fetching, but always because in the end, they’re just trying to do the right thing according to their code. Uhtred is similar to that, but since the series starts when he’s 10, it feels like you get to grow up with him and watch him make all those decisions, even while the people he most loves in life are imprisoned or slaughtered around him. The funny thing about Uhtred is his central conflict of having been raised by the Danes and loving them like family, but forever being called upon to defend the Saxons and therefore fight against the Danes. It’s tragic on one level, but makes it immensely satisfying when he gets to fight with those he loves.
In the end, this story is a gut wrenching tale of a swordsman who is seeking to claim his rightful place in the world. By doing that, Cromwell creates a fast paced tale of love, hate, pain, and revenge and it is completely amazing to get to read.
4 ink bottles.