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Lords of the North is the third installment of Bernard Cornwell's Saxon series which follows Uhtred through the highs and lows of his life. Told from the perspective of Uhtred as an old man reflecting on his life, the stories are full of a mix of historical fact and fiction, and Cornwell makes it very hard to put the books down. I read the second not long after the first, for continuity purposes and memory reasons - Cornwell packs a lot into the books and sometimes details of events and characters can slip out if you leave it too long.
When it came to reading this third book in the series, I had an issue - my mum and brother are also reading the series, and no one could locate the book, let alone remember who actually had it last. Therefore, it has been quite a while since I read the second book, and I worried that I would have forgotten the events of the first two books and would suffer a lack of enjoyment and understanding as a result. I needn't have feared. Those looking at picking a random book up to read would even be able to follow this completely, with only a couple of points being slightly lost. Cornwell does a good way of recapping the previous couple of books, not in a prologue or designed recap like Christopher Paolini did with his Inheritance saga, but by giving a brief recap when things crop up, such as characters and locations, events and battles.
The story follows Uhtred in 9th Century England, and in the first couple of books we saw him rise from being a young Saxon boy, kidnapped and raised by Danes, proving to be a great warrior on and off the battlefield, and being one of Alfred the Great's favoured warriors, despite their clear lack of liking for each other. Friends with Danes and Saxons alike, Uhtred has a unique position of basically only fighting against bad people. In this book, he leaves his recently award land in Devon (he's a Lord now!) to travel north to York, near Bebbanburg which was his father's rule and was usurped by his uncle, who he loathes. The intention is to find a way to take the almost impenetrable fortress from his uncle, but there are many things that lie in the way, and it is soon clear that there are other forces, both Saxon and Dane, in control of land in the area. Uhtred must work out who to trust, and who to fight, in this fast moving third installment, if he is to find himself a strong foothold in the battle to regain what is rightfully his.
I imagine Cornwell's ultimate intention with the series is to reward Uhtred with the eventual capture of his own land at Bebbanburg, but every time we think it's going to happen, something else gets in the wat. Here, Uhtred's sworn childhood enemy, Sven, and his father Kjarten, feature heavily as having other strongholds near Bebbanburg, and the force of Ivar the Cruel, another Dane, also lurks menacingly. For Hutred to take Bebbanburg, he has to negotiate the lands around it in order to ensure it's safe for him to even be there. Cornwell makes this even more of a revenge match by forcing betrayal on Uhtred about halfway through the book. Our hero must then come back and start anew with a motley band of friends and former enemies for one last surge to gain the upper hand in the area.
This is essentially what the blurb on the back of the book says, and I thought it would be giving too much away at the time, but it really doesn't. This is the very barest of bones on what is the most intricate yet understandable of the books yet. It flows very well, and takes things away somewhat from the influence Alfred has had over Uhtred up until now. It focuses on the old blood feud between Uhtred and Sven, who he reduced to one eye when they were younger; and Kjartan who had killed the Dane who raised Uhtred, Ragnar.
Throughout it all, there is the confusion of religion and which side you're on. Uhtred stands in a unique position of being a Saxon raised by Danes, thus owing no loyalty to one over the other. The religious position is perhaps the most detailed, the Christian priests swaying the Saxon lords with their words and Saints and relics, and Cornwell almost presents them as the more ridiculous of the two beliefs. Indeed, this is what Uhtred believes too, having been raised to believe in the Danish Gods such as Odin and Thor. The difference is that the Danish Gods play their part much less and are all about proving your worth, whereas the promotion of the Christian religion is about sacrifice and giving and plays a much larger part in the day to day existence of mankind. Perhaps Uhtred favours the easier option, or the one that favours warriors more than priests; either way Cornwell seems to favour the Danish way, portraying many Christian priests as overly pious, corrupt and selfish; naivety and and over-zealous preaching also come into in, saying every lucky moment is due to the Gods in favour and that every unlucky moment is them being punished for something. There is often no explanation available, and this seeds doubt in most minds.
It makes you think and wonder, and Cornwell uses this to provide a constant shift in focus, presenting heroes and enemies at every turn, even switching the allegiance of some and providing a delicate balance between Danes and Saxons as some join forces and others do not. Inter-battles between the two factions should make it complicated, but Cornwell through Uhtred manages to make it completely understandable, and the book flows a lot more than I had expected it too. The characters are largely visible in your mind's eye, as are the locations, as Cornwell is never one for shying away from some lengthy descriptions. Perhaps it's the historian in him that won't let him gloss over something which may end up being factual and informative. Either way, I feel I learn something from his historical fiction, even if only the washing and living habits people had, what was right and wrong, the differences between acceptable then and now, and the ways people had to exist.
Overall, this is a fine novel. At around 350 pages long, it's easy to make your way through this, and although there is more content in the words than something like a James Patterson novel and as a result this takes slowing down and concentrating a bit more, it still flows very well and shouldn't take long to read. I would recommend reading the series from the start, as certain things will make more sense, but it should in no way detract from the enjoyment of the tale if you pick this up without having read the first two. I'm off to read the fourth one straight away. Recommended.
Having read a number of Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe novels I was keen to pick up something a little different. It would be fair to say that Cornwell is one of the market leaders in Historic Fiction, a genre I am rapidly becoming a lot more interested in. It was with that in mind that I picked up Lords Of The North on special offer at Tesco. I didn't realise at the time that this was the third book in the Alfred series and although I read it out of the natural sequence Cornwell sets the scene and recounts the story well enough to make it accessible in any order.
The year is 878 and the Vikings have been thrown out of West Sussex by King Alfred. As a result Uhtred heads North to get vengeance on the killers of his family and retake what he believes to be rightfully his. He teams up with Guthred a freed slave who intends to take over Northumbria and unite Northern England under one ruler who is sympathetic to Saxons and Danes alike. There are a number of dangerous enemies in Northumbria and Uhtred must continually watch his back, even when it comes to those he considers to be friends.
Having picked this third book up prior to reading any of the other books in the series I was very surprised and quite impressed by how easy it was to get into. It proves that Cornwell knows how to write engaging Historical Fiction that strikes the balance between recapping on his previous work and keeping the pace of the story flowing along very well. It is a very interesting time period and basing his work on real events and the outline of real characters to create an engaging, addictive read that has you turning the pages as quickly as possible.
The story is told from the perspective of the lead character Uhtred and the more books I read in the first person narrative the more I enjoy them. It gives us a great insight into the world that Cornwell really wants to create. He uses the character as the readers view into this ancient land and uses his feelings, emotions and actions to really bring the story to life. There are some very interesting characters within the story such as Kjarten the Cruel and Ivar one of the other Northumbrian Kings. The collection of characters really adds a number of dimensions to the story.
The story has a very good flow to it and Cornwell goes into great detail in setting the scenes and really does create a very real image in the mind of the scenes the story is set within. He also explores the two sides to the church from the Saxon believes and the Danes struggle to comprehend the believes and the basis of the Saxon religion. With Cornwell's lead character Uhtred being neither a Dane nor a Saxon it provides a refreshing view as he sees the advantages and disadvantages of both sides and stays true to his own believes.
At 383 pages long this book is just about the right length. The plot of the book is incredibly well developed and holds the readers interest throughout. What Cornwell does particularly well is to create interesting settings and characters that make even the most simple of Historical stories, mixing the religious and personal aspects of the time together particularly well to create an interesting plot.
Overall it is a very interesting read that starts with a good detail of back story and quickly picks up pace. I found that the read was very addictive and held my interest throughout. It piqued my interest in the rest of the series and the attention to detail that Cornwell puts into his writing make it a very compulsive read. The settings are very well described, the characters are all very well crafted and the combination of the two factors really makes this book stand out for me in the Historical Fiction genre.
ISBN - 978-0007219704
It must be sad being Bernard Cornwell. For the past 20 odd years you have been able to write about one character and see them progress through their life. For Cornwell, Sharpe must have been like an old friend that just happened to produce vast quantities of cash whenever a book was released. Through these 20 years Cornwell has produced several other series of books in the vain hope of recapturing the magic of a long running set of books. Unfortunately, none have gone longer than four books (Starbuck) and most become trilogies. I believed this trilogy fate was the most likely outcome for Cornwells latest books about Uhtred, a Dark Ages warrior who is fighting to reclaim his birthright. After the first two lacklustre titles I was pretty glad to be finished with the series. However, much to my dismay it turns out that Uhtred is actually going to star in a continuing series of books. Could the third book The Lords of the North do anything to improve my opinion of the series?
Uhtred is back and this time he has set his mind on regaining is land in Northumbria and sets off North without the permission of King Alfred. It is not long until Uhtred comes across old enemies as he has to rescue a group of slaves from Sven, a man that he blinded in one eye. As fate would have it one of the slaves claims to be the true king of Cumbria and wishes for Uhtred to help him reclaim his throne. This chance meeting of a slave puts him on a path that will see him become rich, become enslaved and have to fight hounds from hell.
I am glad to say that after two pretty mediocre books the Uhtred books have finally hit their stride. Perhaps it took me too books to warm to the character of Uhtred as he is not particularly sympathetic. In fact, in many situations he is as cold and as violent as any of his sworn enemies. The only real difference between Uhtred and someone like Sven is that he has a just motive and that once he swears allegiance to someone he is bound to his word.
The previous two books suffered from being far too similar to many other Cornwell outings and in particular his Grail Quest books. They basically saw some injustice happen to Uhtred and him seeking revenge. Essentially like most Cornwell books. To be honest The Lords of the North also follows this pattern, but Cornwell has managed to add far more life into the book. Gone are the pious thoughts of King Alfred, instead we are left with the morally ambiguous Uhtreds wishes alone to decide his fate. This means that the book has far more spontaneity and as a reader you never know what he may do next unlike the cautious Alfred, who dominated Uhtreds actions in previous titles.
There is nothing startlingly original about this tale, but its amongst Cornwells faster books and is full of adventure. Fate plays a huge part and if you stop and think about it too much you will realises that it is ridiculous. However, the action is so relentless and fun that you are able to forgive Cornwell his pie in the sky writing style.
The main reason why the third book finally hit the right groove is that the character of Uhtred and the world he inhabits has come of age. He may be arrogant, selfish and greedy, but at least we know about his motives. It has taken Cornwell two books to create a vivid world of warring Lords, raiding Vikings and competing religions. There is now a vast playground for Uhtred to play in. He has made enough enemies that every move he makes affects someone. Cornwell is able to finish this novel in a large set piece and still know that there are plenty more enemies out there for Uhtred to face. The books are finally starting to feel like epic adventures.
Cornwells confident and well worn writing style is also on assured course here. Few authors manage to write over 30 books and still have the reader wanting to come back for more. Yes, he may be visiting old ground and his style is quite farfetched, but this is fun reading and not academic text. I would not advise people to jump straight in to the series here, but instead force themselves to read the first two books, as bland as they are, so that they get a full understanding of the different factions. The Lords of the North is a fun novel that gives you a feeling of adventure. It is unlikely to win any awards, but for sheer smile factor there is little that can beat it.
Author: Bernard Cornwell
Price: amazon uk - £3.49
play.com - £5.00
Historical fiction must be amongst the best to write. Why do I say that? Well, you start off with the historical fact, add in a few fictional characters, take some artistic license around the story and, voila, you have a decent book. In actuality, Im sure its must trickier than that and the proof of the pudding is in the eating but I do know that Ive come to enjoy historical fiction nearly as much as any other genre that Ive traditionally liked. Perhaps one of the best examples of this off-the-top-of-me-ead thesis would be Bernard Cornwells The Lords of the North from his Alfred the Great series which I read whilst holidaying in Wales recently.
The year is 878 and Alfred has just won a great victory over the Danes, establishing him as the undisputed King of Wessex. Uhtred is a Danish lord who has helped Alfred to overcome his enemy but is resentful of his bounty of just five hides awarded to him by Alfred as a reward. Uhtred of Bebbanburg, the man who killed Ubba Lothbrokson beside the sea and spilled Svein of the White Horse from his saddle at Ethandun, together with his female charge, Hild, decides to travel north to reclaim his ancestral lands and kill the mighty warlords of Northumbria. Joining forces with Guthred, the man who would be the Christian king of the North and sponsored by Alfred, Uhtred determines to kill Kjartan the Cruel along with his son, Sven the one-eyed, who live in the fortress, Dunholm for murdering the man who brought him up as a child. With a cruel twist of fate and for reasons of politics, Guthred sells Uhtred into slavery in order to gain power. As he rows relentlessly on a slave ship trading around the coasts surrounding the North Sea, Uhtred dreams of the day that he can gain revenge on those who betrayed him and take back that what was his.
First of all, I read this as a stand alone experience but it is the third in Cornwells Alfred the Great sequence with more books to follow. The previous books include: The Last Kingdom and The Pale Horseman. Bernard Cornwell is an established writer of historical fiction who is probably most famous for his series of Sharpe books (adapted for TV and starring Sean Bean) but he has also written The Grail Quest series, Stonehenge, The Starbuck Chronicles and The Warlord Chronicles. Cornwells attention to detail is immaculate. With an opening introduction that explains the place names used and how they translate today to a historical note at the end that gives context to the historical events as well as explaining where the author has used artistic license to fill in any gaps, those readers demanding attention to detail wont be disappointed in Cornwells efforts to achieve authenticity in what is, essentially, a Boys Own type of story.
Cornwell writes with a flourish. From a slow start that sets the scene, the story gathers momentum from chapter to chapter, with the writer building his characters through a mixture of actions and dialogue. The story is a first person account of events from Uhtreds perspective and Im sure that its no coincidence that the hero of the book is nether a Christian nor a Saxon. Its because of this that Cornwell engineers the opportunity to examine the political flux in motion at this time in English history, with the country split between Saxons and Danes and the struggle between the competing religions of Christianity and the Danish Gods underpinning the motives of both Alfred as potential overlord of the whole country and the Danes who see the country as their own. I came to like Uhtred a great deal and if the writers wants us to identify with the characters then he succeeds. Uhtred is fatalistic, determined and almost a machismo figure in the mould of a ninth century Clint Eastwood. With the romanticized swords Serpents Breath, Wasp Sting and a faithful horse, Uhtred is every bit the Arthurian knight type of figure taken straight from a Beowulf poem.
I enjoyed the contrasting depiction of the church as well. From some very devout figures including Alfred and the flawed Father Beocca to some very sinister religious characters like Hrothweard and his obsession with carrying the corpse of the Saint Cuthbert around, Cornwell captures the essence of the religious struggle that drove the events of those times. Mens desire for Christian forgiveness contrasts with the Danish warriors desperation to die with a sword in their hand and enter the Corpse Hall - Valhalla - where enemies will meet once more and old battles will be re-enacted all over again. Cornwell deals with the action sequences very well, never glorifying war or fighting but lending a level of authenticity to the way battles would have panned out. With the numbers quoted in the respective armies being so small and a pretty rudimentary style of fighting in simply matching up shield walls with shield walls meaning that the force with the greater men is generally more likely to win then the author paints a picture of mud and turf, blood and guts that makes the reader wince with the detail and yet understand the emotions of the winners and losers in those life and death struggles.
At 383 pages and just 11 chapters, it didnt take long to rip through the book at all. The story gathered pace and the set pieces including battles, sword fights and a truly mystical finale lit up the later chapters even if things did become decidedly gory at times. Fans of historical fiction will love it although it might be a bit much for younger children with some of the violence involved. The book can be read as a stand alone experience but Im sure it reads even better in the series that it is a part of. It would be an easy jump from book to screen if television producers did decide to take the story on but, in the meantime, more stories are to follow and thats great news for people following the events of the embryonic country that was to become the England of today.
Thanks for the read
Published by Harper Collins: www.harpercollins.co.uk
I bought this paperback from Tesco for £3.79
Available from Amazon from £3.49
The Lords of the North is a powerful story of betrayal, romance and struggle, set in an England of turmoil, upheaval and glory. Uhtred, a Northumbrian raised as a Viking, a man without lands, a warrior without a country, has become a splendid heroic figure.