The Saxon Stories: Book III
Oh Uhtred. How I’ve missed you. Although it’s now been almost a month since I read this, I can still remember how refreshing I found it. That was during my deadline period where I was desperate for non-work-related reading material but entirely lacked the energy or mental capacity to write any blog posts; so I apologise. As you might remember, I’ve already read the first two novels in Bernard Cornwell’s series about Alfred the Great and the third proved to be just the tonic for some undemanding escapism. There are times, of course, when I want complex characterisation and meaty, intricate plots; and then there are times (largely coinciding with deadlines) when quite frankly I relish reading about someone like Uhtred, whose manifesto is short, simple and to the point: ‘That is my land. That is my woman. I will kill you now.’ Excellent.
When we last met Uhtred, he had just saved King Alfred’s skin at the Battle of Ethandum and helped to defeat the Danish army led by Guthrum. Now, as the dust settles and life goes back to normal, his thoughts return to his ancestral lands at Bebbanburg and his usurping uncle Ælfric. Feeling undervalued by Alfred, whose gratitude has been somewhat grudging, Uhtred decides that the time has come to pursue his vengeance and so he heads north, accompanied by Hild, the refugee nun who’s currently sharing his bed. Ælfric isn’t the only one on Uhtred’s list: more pressing, in fact, is his desire for revenge against Kjartan and his son Sven, who were responsible for the murder of Uhtred’s adoptive father Ragnar. But that’s easier said than done, for Kjartan and Sven have established themselves as dominant powers in the north, ensconced in their fortress at Dunholm (Durham, to you and me).
As ever, Uhtred’s path doesn’t quite run smooth. Having freed himself from one king, he finds himself rapidly falling into company with another: the enthusiastic and opportunistic young Guthred, king of Cumbraland. Pressed into service with Guthred, Uhtred trains the young king’s bodyguards and tries to impose some kind of order on his embryonic army. There are some consolations, not least the presence of Guthred’s attractive sister Gisela; but Uhtred is treading a dangerous line. Soon he will learn that opportunism can cut both ways, not everyone wears their hearts on their sleeves, and in these dark times no one can truly be trusted, not even kings.
It’s probably just because I read it at such a mentally demanding time, but I really appreciated this book’s easy style and the very vivid narration of adventure and battle. Uhtred may not be a complicated character but he feels believable and three-dimensional and, most importantly, he’s consistent. Despite his rather primitive attitude to many things, you can’t help warming to him. Without giving away too much, Uhtred spends part of the book travelling around the North Sea and this offers us the chance to see a little more of the Viking world from his perspective: trade centres; modest dwellings where the sailors spend winter with their cargos away from the angry seas; the coasts and markets of Denmark and Scandinavia; and Iceland.
Cornwell rarely gets poetic, but the descriptions of the whale road and of Iceland itself were unexpectedly beautiful. His real strong point though, as ever, is in the battle scenes. There are several set-pieces in the book, not least in the final chapters, where the pace picks up and we plunge right into the heart of things. It’s dynamic and engaging stuff, even if it never quite crosses into really thrilling hair-raising territory.
The red ship was close and was coming fast. Her bows were crowned with a black-toothed dragon’s head.. She came in a gale of noise; the splash of oar-blades, the shouts of her warriors and the seethe of white water around the great red breast of her high prow… The oars gave one last heave … the dragon’s head reared up and the great ship’s keel crashed up the beach in a thunder of scattering shingle… This was no trading ship, but a Viking come to her kill.
The more I write about the books I read, the more I realise what a subjective thing a ‘good book’ is. My opinion is based not only on my own predilections for particular genres (swashbuckling = marvellous, clearly) but also on how busy I am at work, what mood I’m in at the time, or even which films I’ve been watching recently. The Lords of the North did exactly what I needed in offering a brisk and lively distraction from my work trials and tribulations. The caveats I’ve noted for the previous books in the series still apply, although it was all such good stuff that I was almost willing to overlook the recurrence of the dreaded word ‘hump’. Almost.