NY: HarperCollins, 2007.
Originally, I thought Cornwell’s engaging, entertaining, and very well-written story of the struggles of King Alfred (“the Great”) to preserve England as an English land was going to be a trilogy, ending with the Battle of Edington, the treaty with Guthrum, and the establishment of the Danelaw. It appears, however, that he’s going for the full franchise. The series is up to five volumes now, and still growing. And that’s fine with me because he’s doing such a good job at it!
Uhtred, through whom we experience the world of the late 9th century, is the rightful lord of Bebbanburg (Bamburgh, in Northumberland), exiled by circumstances, and replaced by his uncle, who would prefer to see him dead. Though Anglo-Saxon by birth, he was raised by the Danes (who captured him after his father’s death in battle) with the result that he’s decidedly equivocal in his loyalties. He’s also determinedly pagan, which pisses off every priest he comes across (and apparently has annoyed a lot of fundamentalist readers, which is always good). In this third volume, Uhtred has gotten Alfred back on his throne — having been the one who actually got things organized during the bleak months hiding out in the fens of Somerset — and now wants only to return north to resolve the blood-feud that followed the murder by hall-burning of his foster father, Ragnar, and to settle scores with his despised uncle. Early on, he has the opportunity to rescue Guthred, the young and rather feckless Danish claimant to the throne of Northumbria, from slavery, and that gets him immediately into the inner circles. Then his foster brother, Ragnar Ragnarson, who had been a hostage after Edington, gets into the act and things get interesting. The author spins a complex and exciting story, deftly plotted in terms of believable military strategy and comprehensible political goals, and Uhtred, admittedly not always a likeable person, is still very much a hero. And he knows it, too – in fact, he lives for it. The historical essentials of Alfred’s wars in the south are pretty much known, which limits what one can get away with in fiction, but in the north, the history of the period is pretty much up for grabs and Cornwell takes full advantage of the possibilities. And I don’t think anyone writing today can do a battle scene — or even a duel — better. Let’s hope this series rivals Sharpe’s adventures for longevity.