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Bernard Cornwell's series covering the end of the 9th Century and the beginning of the 10th is now 6 books in the making I believe, and shows no sign of stopping. This is the latest, released in paperback this year, and I am now satisfied that I have finally caught up, having started the first of the series a couple of years ago, a few years later than publication dates.
To take the book as an individual publication, it would be simultaneously hard to understand everything (characters, previous events, etc) but you'd be in for an exhilarating ride of a read. Cornwell's ability to map out military strategy and to analyse 9th Century Britain with a fine toothcomb is impressive to say the least. There is also no denying that he is a fine storyteller, high in content and detail but with an ease and familiarity of phrase flow that makes it hard to put down and easy to breeze through the pages, taking each word in. No, I have no issue whatsoever with this as a stand alone book.
My issue DOES come, however, with comparisons to the previous books. I have grown tired of the familiar plot layout, the regular side swapping between Saxon and Dane that at least one major character will inevitably do during the course of the book. Some might say that this is hard to avoid, it being essentially a retelling of history with a fictional twist to make it more entertaining; and Cornwell even goes so far as to include a historical note explaining the reasons behind various elements in the book being included. But this still does not negate the fact that it's so similar that it becomes predictable to say the least.
The series of books centres around Uhtred, a Saxon man raised by Danes when his father was killed and he was captured as a boy. Learning the Danish way of life but staying true to his Saxon roots has caused a conflict of interest on a number of occasions, as he fights like a Dane and follows the Norse Gods, shunning what he believes to be the farce of Christianity; yet his heart lies with the Saxons. In this book, Uhtred is now a feared and revered warlord, the one man you would want leading your army. Approaching the age of 40 now, the tale around Alfred the Great's reign is surely coming to a close as the lands of Wessex, Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria are all featured heavily in the battle to control what we know as England - Alfred's dream.
It's certainly a good way of understanding history and living conditions, and we also get a good feel for military tactics around this time. Religion was at the heart of everything to do with the land, Alfred led by his priests and his family following suit on the whole, while Uhtred jokes at one point about how he as Alfred's warlord should dictate to the priests how they run the church, seeing as how the bishops seem to control what Alfred wants to do with his army. There is a lot piety, and reverence of saints, trust and faith in how He will be on the Saxons' side when it comes to battle and they could not possibly lose with the Christian Right behind them. Uhtred doesn't buy into any of this, preferring instead the battle Gods the Danes worship, and there is no small part of him that still wishes to jump across and fight for the Danes. Of course, the astute Alfred this and puts Uhtred in a position where he must swear an oath and therefore remain true.
The characters are expertly written. Aside from the authority figures, the main ones I like are thos within Uhtred's men: those who have been with him for a number of books and who we as readers have seen grow and develop. There's nothing more exhilarating in a book than a character you can visualise wading into a situation and saving things at the last minute, and Cornwell does this very well. From the King's daughter and son, to the huge and dangerous Steapa, Alfred's household guard leader; then across to the vicious Finian, Uhtred's right hand man, an Irishman with a worrying passion for violence! The flip side doesn't develop the Danes a great deal, although from the way people talk about them you get a good feel for who and what the Danish leaders and warlords are and how their military setup is set.
But the whole thing is like a carbon copy of the previous books. There will be a battle in the middle, something bad will happen, Uhtred will fall out of trust with the church, he'll be shunned, and then he'll still pull through and everything will be alright in the end. Won't it? That's the impression I got as I was reading along, and although there are a few surprises and shocks to be had, the base structure of the plot doesn't alter. Luckily for Cornwell, the book itself is still excellent as a piece of written work, and looking beyond this predictability enables you to enjoy and progress along with Uhtred and co through into the new millenium. Cornwell has promised another book at some point - there is certainly still some work to do before we establish England as a unified land, that's for sure, and so I shall wait until this is published. No doubt when it is I shall be reading it pretty soon after, but my thirst and hunger for the next Saxon Story is diminishing with each book - there's only so much repetitive war and religion you can take. Recommended, but heed the caveat.