Sword Song

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Sword Song (Book 4 of The Saxon Stories)
Bernard Cornwell

Can I just say how grateful I am to live in this age?  I’m incredibly thankful that I don’t live in an age when my father could have married me off without my consent for no other reason than political maneuvering.  I get to choose who I spend my life with and if they hit me, I can tell them where they can shove that fist and then leave forever with no repercussions.  My father certainly won’t condone the brutality.  In fact, if I had to guess, I imagine I’d have to talk the shotgun out of his hands.  Here’s the amazing thing about the way Cornwell writes, he presents Aethelflaed as a woman who submits to her husband, but who is proud.  She defies him when she can and that makes a world of difference in the 9th century.  I’d like to thank the Court of Love, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and the troubadours for seeding the idea that love is the most important part of the marriage decision.  I understand that this won’t be the prevailing reaction to this book, but it’s the largest one I’m left with.

Publisher’s Blurb:

The year is 885, and England is at peace, divided between the Danish kingdom to the north and the Saxon kingdom of Wessex in the south. Warrior by instinct and Viking by nature, Uhtred, the dispossessed son of a Northumbrian lord, has land, a wife and children—and a duty to King Alfred to hold the frontier on the Thames. But a dead man has risen, and new Vikings have invaded the decayed Roman city of London with dreams of conquering Wessex . . . with Uhtred’s help. Suddenly forced to weigh his oath to the king against the dangerous turning tide of shifting allegiances and deadly power struggles, Uhtred—Alfred’s sharpest sword—must now make the choice that will determine England’s future.

In spite of what I’ve already said, the Saxon Stories continue to be fueled by bloody battles, sea wolves, and religious schisms. Though it feels like Uhtred gets to sit out of more battles (not really something he would have chosen), there’s still no lack of blood and conflict in his life.  I spent the last half of the book worrying about Gisela for no reason other than knowing that Uhtred’s wives have notoriously short life spans.  Though I will say this, and only this, Gisela is pretty freaking kick ass.  I completely fell in love with her character in this story and it’s because she is everything that I want to be when I grow up. (Yes, I can still say that when I’m 28.)

The religion gets particularly icky during a Christian test of the purity of a wife.  Cornwell calls it the “ordeal of bitter water” in his historical note and that seems like a pretty accurate name for what occurs.  It sickened me to no end and made me thoroughly glad that I’ll never have to fear a priest in the night.

It’s funny how this review became a review of the women of the story.  There’s still the usual blood and guts in this story, but we’re allowed brief little glimpses into the lives of the other sex and as a history nerd, I reveled in it.  I always knew that it would have sucked pretty hard monkey balls to be a woman in the 9th century (one possible exception was in Wales where women were treated as equals), but the extreme treatment these women were forced to endure was startling.  The part that was the most galling to me was Alfred’s acceptance and encouragement of the abuse of Aethelflaed.

In the end, it’s a compelling story of one man’s journey through 9th century England to reclaim his rightful place in his childhood home, but it’s more than that too.  The cast of characters that surround Uhtred provide a vibrancy that would otherwise be lacking in the story.  They get that extra little bit of buy in from you that makes the story that much more juicy (sometimes in the grossly literal sense).

4 ink bottles.

Book Links:  Goodreads, Publisher

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