"Englaland" [sic], King Alfred once said, "will be God’s land," but first the Norse and the Danes, worshippers of the old gods, must be banished, a bloody struggle Cornwell (The Empty Throne, 2015, etc.) chronicles in the ninth of his Saxon series.
This tale’s a continuous barrage of battles, interspersed with political, social, and religious intrigue. In the 10th century, Saxon King Edward (Alfred's son) rules Wessex and East Anglia. Mercia is ruled by Edward’s sister, Lady Æthelflaed. Between those three regions and wild Scotland is Northumbria, controlled by Norsemen and Danes. Edward is cautious, unwilling yet to move north. The more adventurous Lady Æthelflaed’s being prodded by her ally Uhtred, Lord of Bebbanburg, whose northern lands are held by the invaders. Wielding his sword, Serpent-Breath, Uhtred speeds to battle when Ragnall the Cruel, leading Norsemen, Danes, and Irish, sails up the River Mærse. Ragnall intends to conquer and unite the four kingdoms. Thus begin battles large and small, culminating at Hrothwulf’s Farm. (Cornwell includes a map and place name index.) Uhtred, always attacking at "wolf-light," the mist-riven pre-dawn hours, has grown into a multidimensional character, and Cornwell’s vivid descriptions do justice to the sceptered isle. Beyond the sword and shield are interesting themes about political expediency, personal loyalty, and the complicated confrontations between early Christians and worshippers of pagan gods. Cornwell’s archaic curses are fun—"a useless lump of self-important gristle"—and there’s more than one colorful factoid—bleached skulls on ramparts become a fear-inspiring "ghost fence." As usual, Cornwell’s research gives the book veracity, and his rendering of the tale from Uthred’s point of view allows immersion into the complex story of how disparate kingdoms became England.
Cornwell's latest is often bloody, sometimes ribald, but always smartly done. Fans might be disappointed with this effort’s brevity, though, and new readers will be better served by beginning at the start of the series (The Last Kingdom, 2005).