Cornwell, Bernard. Death of Kings.

NY: HarperCollins, 2011.

This seventh volume in the highly-regarded “Saxon Tales” series is a turning point in the saga of the creation of “England,” which could so easily have become “Daneland” instead. Uhtred of Bebbanburg, born Saxon but raised Danish, has been King Alfred’s war-leader for a couple of decades now, the victor at Edington and Benfleet, the capturer of London, the killer of Ubba (greatest Danish warrior of his day), and all because he gave Alfred his oath.

He has never much liked the unlikeable Alfred but he has come to respect him enormously. And all he really wants to do is to raise the silver to raise the army he needs to recapture his hereditary seat in Northumbria, which was usurped by his uncle. Now it’s the autumn of 899 and the king is dying, and Uhtred has carefully refrained from swearing allegiance to Edward, the young heir. But then Alfred, on his deathbed, inevitably coerces him into it, and Uhtred knows his destiny is to continue to fight the Danes and support the Saxons of Wessex. And then Alfred is gone and Edward (later to be known as “the Elder”) is trying to figure out how to be king. He’s not his father but he has promise — if he can only learn to make decisions on his own and not under the thumb of the Church and his mother. Uhtred knows full well the Danes have just been waiting for Alfred’s death, for the chaos that will follow and the opportunities it will present. In addition, Aethelwold, Edward’s drunken cousin — who, technically, has yet a better claim to the crown, but would be a complete disaster if he ever obtained it — has gone over to the Danes. And the Kentish leaders aren’t happy, either. The thing is, the enemy doesn’t seem to be doing anything. Why aren’t the Danish armies invading? Uhtred can’t figure it out and, as the months go by, the new king’s advisors are sure there won’t be a war after all. The reader, of course, knows better, and the last third of the book provides Cornwell his opportunity to do what he does best — to follow Uhtred into battle, this time in East Anglia, which settles things for a time and removes a number of players from the game.

This volume doesn’t have quite the pace of the previous couple of episodes, but that’s largely a result of the history the author has to deal with. Because he never changes history for the purposes of the story, but there are plenty of gaps in the narrative of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle into which Uhtred fits very nicely. We already know he’s going to live a very long time, so this series could, in theory, become as lengthy as the author’s “Sharpe” series. England isn’t safe yet!

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