A dispossessed Northumbrian gets a military education from the Danes before reluctantly signing on to serve the humorless Wessexian king, he who will eventually become Alfred the Great (849–99).
Opening yet another series, Cornwell, who turns out about two high-quality historicals a year (Sharpe’s Escape, 2004, etc.) without breaking a sweat, examines, through the eyes of a reluctant vassal, the career of the only English king to rate a Great. Born Osbert, younger son of Uhtred, ealdorman of Bebbanburg, on the coast of Northumbria, robust, war-loving Uhtred got renamed on the death of his older brother, killed by the Danes who, on a later raid, seized the lad and, admiring his spunk, kept him as a sort of pet. And Uhtred loves the Danish life. Back in Bebbanburg, his father and grumpy stepmother had been trying to have him educated by Beocca, a too-serious, too-Christian monk, but Uhtred wasn’t interested. (And Uhtred’s greedy uncle wanted him dead.) Ragnar, the warrior Dane who spared Uhtred’s life, seeing real soldier potential in the boy, taught him the fine points of disemboweling, decapitating, etc., in a blissfully wild childhood on the land the invaders had seized from the very disorganized English. Besides loving the warrior life, Uhtred finds rowdy fatalistic paganism infinitely more sensible and appealing than the morose and, well, wimpy Christianity his countrymen cling to. The one glitch in his new life is the lifelong enemy he makes when he interrupts the prepubescent sexual assault on Ragnar’s daughter by Sven, son of Kjartan, one of Ragnar’s lieutenants. Sven and Kjartan will eventually be the death of Ragnar, forcing Uhtred and his wild English girlfriend, Brida, to move south, reluctantly resuming their British identities and drifting into the camp of Alfred, the only king on the island who hasn’t capitulated to the invaders.
Cornwell’s no-fail mix of historic tidbits and good-humored action makes the usually gloomy ninth century sound like a hell of a lot of fun.