The latest installment of Cornwell’s vastly entertaining and slyly wise saga of life in ninth-century Britain sees the dyspeptic King Alfred’s very young daughter married off to a brute who fancies himself a future monarch.
Followers of this excellent series have stuck with Uhtred of Bebbanburg, the dispossessed pagan nobleman in thrall to the professionally Christian Wessexian monarch, through enough battles and perils for a dozen ordinary men. And indeed the gorgeous and powerful scene with which Cornwell (Lords of the North, 2007, etc.) opens this volume is one of the bloodiest passages in the entire epic, but after that nasty bit there is enough peace in Uhtred’s domestic life—pregnant wife and nice Roman villa—that fans will feel ever so slightly rested. That savage opening, by the way, buttresses one of the author’s constant themes—that is, that war is invariably marked by panic and luck, and it is terrible and cruel. Cornwell also examines the comparative disadvantage of Christianity in a violent world. The British church and its apparat surrounding the royal court, with very few exceptions, lack the nobility and even the charity of the Viking troublemakers. The deeply religious Alfred, for example, buys into the ravings of the bishop of London, who believes the king’s son-in-law (Uhtred’s rotten cousin) has every right, perhaps even an obligation, to beat his royal wife Æthelflaed senseless. The Saxon born but Viking-reared Uhtred is revolted by the theology, but he is oath-bound to Alfred and powerless to intercede. Uhtred’s sentiments complicate his mission when the king sends him to retrieve Æthelflaed, who has been snatched by the Norsemen, who have assembled in East Anglia ready to invade Wessex and reclaim London.