This 11th entry in Cornwell’s Saxon Tales series (The Flame Bearer, 2016, etc.) is a rousing, bloodthirsty tale of tumult in early-days Britain.
Uhtred, the powerful 10th-century Lord of Bebbanburg, sets out with less than a hundred men to relieve the siege of Ceaster and rescue Prince Æthelstan, King Edward’s son. But someone has tricked Uhtred, who has been lured across Britain “to rescue a man who did not need rescuing.” Someone has drawn him away from defense of his native Northumbria, and he determines to “discover the name of an enemy.” Around the year 920, Britain is still a jumble of small kingdoms. Edward is the self-appointed Anglorum Saxonum Rex, the first king of the Angles and the Saxons. He wants to annex Northumbria, but Uhtred will not swear loyalty to him. For one thing, Uhtred’s son-in-law Sigtryggr is already king there. Meanwhile, Christianity is beginning to spread, but the 60-something pagan Uhtred wants none of that—his gods can walk on water too, if they want to. Although the plot is complicated, it boils down to this: Uhtred wants to kill the Norseman who wants to kill him and conquer Northumbria. The story has marvelous details, such as the fierce warrior Svart who has a beard with bones woven into it. Swords have names like Serpent-Breath, Soul-Stealer, and Wasp-Sting. And be they Saxon, Angle, Dane, or Norse, everyone is enamored of wolves, especially the “wolf-warriors” who use henbane ointment to make them crazy before battle. Uhtred observes that King Edward is caught in “a tangle of love, loyalties and hate, mostly hate….The only thing that was simple was war.” And war there certainly is. Serpent-Breath and his many murderous cousins inflict bloody butchery in spectacular hand-to-hand combat. A Christian man laments that “my god weeps for Englaland…my god wants peace.” Alas, that god gets no satisfaction in this grand adventure.
Great entertainment for fans of historical epics.