Cornwell (Warriors of the Storm, 2016, etc.) draws another rollicking Saxon tale from the period when “the scepter’d isle,” soon to be “Englaland,” was plagued by Norse and Dane raiders.
Supported by the coffers of father-in-law Lord Æthelhelm, Saxon King Edward rules Wessex and East Anglia. Edward’s sister, though ill, controls Mercia. Half-Dane, half-Saxon, a worshipper of the old gods, Lord Uthred has allied with, and resisted, both. Now Uthred turns to his own interests: Northumbria and his fortress, Bebbanburg, stolen long ago by his uncle. Wryly told, the novel unfolds from Uthred’s point of view, with back story filled in as he plots to seize Bebbanburg. He also must outwit Constantin, king of the Scots, scheming behind Hadrian’s Wall, and Norseman Einar the White, blockading from the sea. In this volume, Uthred, called the Wicked by his foes, proves the most nuanced character, sometimes doubt-ridden and ruthless, always loyal and fierce. As Uthred slips north toward Bebbanburg’s Sea Gate and unleashes his warrior “wolf pack,” blood and gore drip from the pages. Familiar characters—Uthred’s loyal lieutenant, the Irish warlord Finan, or his one-eyed son-in-law, Sigtryggr—play minor roles. The duplicitous cousin holding Bebbanburg is seen from afar, as is King Edward waiting to pluck Bebbanburg and Northumbria from the chaos, but mad Bishop Ieremias joins the fun. As always, Cornwell reinforces credibility with ancient place names—modern York was then Eoferwic—and the blow-by-blow details of shield warfare in a period when “armies” numbered a mere 50 to 500 warriors.
No lit-fic pretensions here: historical fiction rendered, with little expansion, via battles and royal intrigue and portraits of day-to-day life circa 1000 B.C.E.