“ ‘I hate peace,’ ” snarls old soldier Uhtred, who regards periods of relative tranquility—not that these abound in his embattled land—as opportunities for his enemies to mount conspiracies against him and, by extension, King Alfred of Wessex, to whom he has sworn allegiance. Lord Uhtred of Bebbanburg: clever, resourceful, intemperate, charming, feared by most men and adored by too many women. In tribute to his generalship and the unparalleled success he’s had in repelling invasions through the years, the ever-marauding Danes refer to him bleakly as the Sword of the Saxons. It’s King Alfred’s cherished dream to reshape an unruly collection of tribes into a thing called England. He wants it to be Christian and cohesive enough to drive the Danes back into the sea once and for all. The Christian part is what Uhtred is out of sympathy with. In his view the new religion replaces joy with hypocrisy, a bad bargain, he thinks. Uhtred prefers the old ways when the proper blood sacrifice could propitiate essentially undemanding gods and tip a teetering battle toward victory. But now Alfred’s reign is in its final stages and no one, Uhtred included, can quite figure the geopolitical implications of the aftermath. All agree, however, that it will be unsettled. Worried about the succession, Alfred asks Uhtred to transfer his allegiance to his son Edward, and Uhtred agrees, albeit reluctantly—Edward is no Alfred. The great King dies, smoldering grudges ignite, alliances shift, armies clash and Uhtred is once again a happy warrior.
The surprise is that Cornwell’s love scenes are as deft as his action scenes, though far fewer, of course—all driven by a hard-shelled, sporadically soft-hearted, always charismatic protagonist: George Clooney alert.