Oswiu: King of Kings: Edoardo Albert

★★★★

The Northumbrian Thrones: Book III

In this third and (currently) last instalment in The Northumbrian Thrones, the ramifications of Oswald‘s untimely death spread across the feuding kingdoms of Britain. It is now 642 AD and the unification that seemed within reach during the reign of Edwin has crumbled away. Even Northumbria is no longer united. Oswald’s younger brother Oswiu faces a long, hard battle to secure his kingship against the mightiest ruler in the land: Penda, ambitious and ruthless king of Merica. But Oswiu has one advantage that Penda lacks: the posthumous, miracle-working reputation of the murdered Oswald.

In a sacred grove deep within Mercia, Oswald’s head and arms hang upon Woden’s tree, testament to a double-pronged defeat. As a man and king, he has been bested by Penda. As the champion of the new religion, he has been crushed by the greater power of the old gods. Or so Penda claims. But unsettling rumours are spreading in Mercia: it’s said that earth gathered at the site of Oswald’s death has worked miracles. The common people come to dig there in the hope of healing or protection. Penda’s actions may have removed his main rival for the title of High King of Britain, but they’ve given him something far harder to conquer: a new saint. And, if Oswald’s shadow lies heavily on Mercia, the same is even truer in Northumbria, where Oswiu discovers that he can’t avoid comparisons with his charismatic older brother. As both kings seek to prove themselves, their struggle will bring them onto a fatal collision course, which only one man can survive.

This is a story of gods and kings, and what happens when one becomes the other. It’s a tale of fathers, brothers and sons, and the psychological impact of growing up in another man’s shadow. It’s about keeping your word. Yet, for all these grand themes, the book Oswiu (like the man) is very different from its predecessor. I’ll be honest: I missed the epic grandeur of Oswald and would have preferred more of that and fewer scenes of siblings squabbling (I felt the children sounded rather modern, compared to Manda Scott‘s younger characters). But that’s just me. Where I think the book does very well is in the characterisation of Oswiu himself. In my post on OswaldI noted I had little sense of Oswiu’s complexity. That’s now changed and I was glad to have the chance to see beneath the scapegrace veneer. It reveals poignant depths: this young man knows very well that his mother would have chosen to sacrifice him, rather than his brother; and suspects the same is true of his wife.

Oswiu knows where his strengths lie: in tricks and misdirection, and so he employs these qualities when dealing with his rival Penda. Faced with so many lacunae in the historical record, Albert creates an old-fashioned adventure story full of disguises, hair’s-breadth escapes, and daring raids behind enemy lines (indeed, characters penetrate the enemy camp on such a regular basis that one feels the Mercians should retrain their guards). Oswiu’s early expedition to rescue his brother’s body – which concludes with a thrilling setpiece – inspires an even more stirring and dramatic confrontation at the novel’s close. But the excitement of such scenes can only work if there’s a worthy villain, and I was glad to see Penda back again, as shrewd as ever but, in true Greek-tragedy style, manifesting the tragic flaw of hubris which will prove his downfall. You’d think he would’ve learned from the fate of Cadwallon, who considered himself the new Arthur. But Penda’s wisdom is undermined by desperation. He wants to believe that his old gods are on his side and, encouraged by his priest, he makes the most daring claim of all: that he, Penda, is Woden returned to earth. And the true danger comes when Penda begins to believe it himself…

In the last two volumes of The Northumbrian Thrones, I’ve noticed the Christian element growing stronger. And I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this (I had similar qualms about the explicit presence of divine powers in the later Boudica books). Although Penda’s a rich, fascinating character, he is clearly placed on the wrong side of the fence. His gods have abandoned him because they simply never were: they are constructs of mankind. The only divine power is on the side of the Christians, manifested through dreams, visions, the calming of storms and the changing of winds in response to prayer. And Oswald continues to play a notable role in Oswiu from beyond the grave, embodied in his raven Bran, though he makes one physical (unseen) appearance. To emphasise, these things are presented as facts rather than as characters’ beliefs. How do we, the reader, react to the presence of an active divine will within a novel? Do we respond as we would to the presence of magic in a fantasy novel? Do we try to second-guess the events and rationalise them for ourselves? Or do we accept that divine will?

This has been an illuminating and enjoyable series, which has given me a more profound understanding of my own history, and encouraged me (one day) to have a go at Bede himself. The depth of Albert’s research has been impressive throughout, explained in thorough introductions and afterwords which prove his devotion to the very scarce facts. There are lots of things for keen-eyed readers to spot: I’m sure I missed most of them, but I was very proud of myself when I recognised The Dream of the Rood. And perhaps the key thing is that Albert manages to capture that difficult blend of the Anglo-Saxon mind, half-anchored in the life of the raid and the ring-giver and the weregild; half-turning towards Christianity’s message of mercy and everlasting life. I encourage historical fiction fans to seek out the trilogy – especially if you enjoy Bernard Cornwell’s Uhtred series, because here you get glimpses of Bamburgh / Bebbanburgh two centuries before the Vikings.

Now, go and find a copy of Edwin, and start the series for yourself!

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I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Last in this series – Oswald: Return of the King

7 thoughts on “Oswiu: King of Kings: Edoardo Albert

  1. Helen says:

    I’ve enjoyed following your progress through these three books (although I haven’t been very good at commenting lately) and I’m glad you liked them, despite your doubts at the beginning. I read Edwin and Oswald a few years ago and loved both – they were of particular interest to me because I so rarely come across historical fiction that covers the history of my part of the country. Oswiu had not been published at that point and I still haven’t got round to reading it, so thank you for reminding me about it. 🙂

  2. Edoardo Albert (@EdoardoAlbert) says:

    Thank you once more for reading and reviewing all three volumes of the Northumbrian Thrones (and no, there won’t be a fourth). I’ve really enjoyed reading your reviews and, if you ever want to move on from the British Museum, you could definitely make a career for yourself writing blurbs for books – your precis of Oswiu (and Edwin and Oswald) are beautifully done: exciting and enticing – if I hadn’t actually already written the books I’d have wanted to read them after reading those!

    Interesting your take on the religious element in the stories. I aimed to be scrupulously fair to both religions although hampered by the fact that we know very, very little about Anglo-Saxon paganism. But I was also faced with trying to explain the historical fact that the Anglo-Saxons, while practising a full-blown pagan religion, over the space of a couple of generations freely chose to adopt the religion of the people they had conquered, and I hope I’ve given some idea of the range of reasons they did this, from prestige through to honest religious conviction. As to presenting events such as the wind changing direction in response to prayer, that of course is what everyone of the time would have seen it as, so I thought it accurate to do so in the story.

    Now I must go and leave a comment on another one of your reviews…

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Ah, that’s too bad: I was hoping the temptation of writing about Ecgfrith might have proven too much to resist. Looks like I’ll be hunting down your nonfiction works then! I really have enjoyed this series and, not just that, but I’ve learned so much from it. Really intelligent and reliable historical fiction is rare, take it from me. I’m not sure how articulate I was about the whole religion angle. It must be hugely, hugely difficult to get that balance right and I wasn’t criticising it so much as trying to open up the field for discussion. As I said, what you do manage where many authors fail is creating that absolutely convincing mental world for your characters.

      And of course I have absolutely no plans to move on from my dream job (😊) but book reviewing does get me the odd free copy, which sates my book addiction without causing too much damage to the modest resources of a curator’s salary. Win-win situation! Plus, as you pointed out before, the truly wonderful thing about my job is that, no matter what my current historical obsession, there’ll be something somewhere in the Museum that can tell me more about it. I’m very, very lucky.

      • Edoardo Albert (@EdoardoAlbert) says:

        No, no plans for Ecgfrith. Really, the story arc of Edwin, Oswald and Oswiu is so wonderful that I thought, when researching it, that someone must surely have written it before – only no one had. So I did!

        As to religion in the books, something that irritates me somewhat is a fairly widespread tendency of historical fiction writers to transplant 21st-century ideas about religion to the 7th century. In particular, writers dealing with the period often seem to treat Christianity with the eyes of people who’ve lived in its history for 1,500 years or more, rather than treating it as it would have seemed to the people of the time: something strikingly strange and new. Too often, modern writers seem to write with the attitude that the Anglo-Saxons, who after all had access to a full-blown religion of their ancestors, somehow made a dreadful error in converting to Christianity. In my books, I try to answer the question of why a race of conquerors should adopt the religion of the people they conquered – a question that has many possible answers.

  3. Edoardo Albert (@EdoardoAlbert) says:

    Oh, and one more thought: well done for spotting ‘The Dream of the Rood’ in Oswiu. In fact, all the riddles, poems and songs scattered through the books are Anglo-Saxon originals. I thought of trying to write something myself in the Anglo-Saxon alliterative metre, then, thankfully, thought better of it and used the real deal.

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