As conspiracies breed in their wake, Lord Uhtred of Bebbanburg and Lady Æthelflaed ally to drive invaders from Mercia in Cornwell’s (The Pagan Lord, 2014, etc.) eighth in his Saxon series.
"In the year of our Lord 911," Alfred the Great is gone. "Alfred had dreamed of uniting the Saxons. That meant driving the Danes out of northern Mercia, from East Anglia, and, eventually, from Northumbria." King Edward now rules Wessex, and Lord Æthelred is Edward’s reeve in Mercia, but he’s been mortally wounded in battle, and it is his wife, Lady Æthelflaed, who has "the love of the Mercians." A heroine lost in history’s mist, the lady is Cornwell’s homage to a warrior, a leader who preserved Mercia against invading Danes and the Vikings encroaching from Ireland. With her lover Uhtred, Æthelflaed fights battles across "Englaland"—the best and bloodiest against the Viking lord Sigtryggr—and manipulates the ealdormen (lords) to accept her leadership upon Æthelred’s death. This novel easily stands alone, with perfectly choreographed battle scenes and political infighting between Æthelhelm, Edward’s father-in-law, "the richest man in Wessex," and Eardwulf, Æthelred’s traitorous henchman. The protagonists, and Uhtred’s daughter, Stiorra, who flees with Sigtryggr, are perfectly drawn. Other characters shine: the giant Gerbruht and Folcbald, Frisian warriors; Finan, Uhtred’s droll second-in-command; and Eadith, Eardwulf’s sister, who wins Uhtred’s affection and heals him with his vanquished enemy’s sword. Despite Cornwell’s use of ancient names and places, the lusty, rollicking narrative (accompanied by a map) is totally accessible and great good fun.
Cornwell’s done it again. New readers: Draw a flagon of ale, and be prepared to find the first seven in the series.