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The difference between Bernard Cornwell and a lot of other authors is that you know every word of his text is important, and you feel comfortable taking that little bit more time to read his work thoroughly. His novels are set against factual historical backdrops, and The Pale Horseman is the second in his series of books based in the late 800s and the rule of King Alfred. The first of these Saxon stories saw Uhtred, our fictional hero, grow from a young boy to a young man, making a name for himself and participating in battles from both sides, both as a Saxon and as a Dane, having the unique advantage of being brought up be Danes following capture at an early age.
What this did was give a two sided slant on proceedings, both from the point of view of the British and of the Danes during the invasion of the bulk of England as we know it. British history always makes me stop and check facts, details, borders and what we were 'called' back then, as things have changed with various attacks and conquests, etc. This second book takes place more in the Westcountry, focusing on these countries, and Alfred's rallying on troops before the charted battle at the end of the book, one which is a factual but takes on a familiar fictional form in its detail as Cornwell describes it. What amazes me about him is how he can twist and turn things so you don't know what to expect even though we're well aware of the historical outcomes.
Cornwell gives Uhtred a number of characters to work with, most notably King Alfred, portrayed as an extremely devout Christian, almost as if belief in God will win over everything else, even a Danish sword. Uhtred is a pagan, having been brought up with Danish Gods as a child, and despite his heritage almost provides a bit of a Devil's Advocate for the large part of the book. Cornwell presents history from both sides in this way, showing that just because the Danes were invading, it didn't necessarily mean that people would have been any better off under their rule. Indeed, there's a lot to be said of the Vikings' way of life and how they treated themselves compared to the poor treatment a lot of the British seemed to be dishing out to their own.
Cornwell also presents our hero with a number of enemies, minor and major, as well as some romance thrown in for good measure. Events always flow along very smoothly, a narrative chronology that refuses to be interrupted by any events, and while emotion must clearly have played a part, you get the feeling of hindsight in the storytelling that means we as the readers are the ones left to try and eek out the emotions at various events, thus becoming part of the story ourselves. I was sucked in on many occasions, engrossed to the point of having to be shaken to get my attention. The power of Cornwell's writing once again.
I always fear at the beginning of his books that I won't be sucked in, that I will struggle over the detail and having to slow myself down in order to catch everything that's important and get bogged down in the detail. However, I always prove myself wrong, and this is no exception. The characters are beautifully crafted and never rushed, with Cornwell emotionlessly adding some in and taking some away, whether by chance, fate, distance, death or any other reason. You can't get overly attached to one character, because no matter how vital and important they seem, the tale and the hero always take you away from this after a few short pages and focus you back on the path of the story, the one that relies on historical fact to progress.
It's Cornwell's writing style as well that's infectious. The chapters aren't short, and the paragraphs are often lengthy to the point where if you picked it up in a shop to flick through, you'd often wonder when you'd be able to pause for a break should it be needed, quite the opposite of a James Patterson novel where three pages is long for a chapter! However, as you read it, you find the breaks and the chapters come flooding through, and even though it's heavy going at time with the detail and importance of nearly every word, you never feel as if you should finish and give yourself a break. It's infectious, and I think the author relies on factual interest to drag us in, just as much as his own creations bring this history to life.
There's an interesting postscript explaining some of the factual elements here, and this is quite a nice addition. It's almost as if he's though of this as a separate book not relevant to the others in the series, allowing us just to sway our attention to the details of this part and not what has happened before or will happen after. I have to forces myself to not pick the next one up straight away and to lend my eyes to another worthy author's work. Cornwell certainly has my attention, and its span for him is ever increasing. Recommended.
The history of England in the period between the departure of the Romans and the establishment of the Anglo Saxon kings is fairly sketchy as little written evidence exists of these "Dark Ages" other than the occasional snippet derived from the Anglo Saxon Chronicles and the pages of illuminated manuscripts. One man who came to prominence at the end of this period and whose name has echoed down the ages, is King Alfred. Most school children learn how he burnt the cakes and little more but Alfred is the man who rid southern England of the Vikings, created himself King of the Anglo-Saxons and established the beginnings of the English legal system.
The Pale Horseman is the second book in Bernard Cornwell's series about Alfred the Great.
Uhtred is Saxon born but his family were killed and his inheritance taken from him by the Vikings who raided his homeland of Northumbria. Uhtred arrives in Wessex, where the Vikings are preparing to fight Alfred's army and take the last English kingdom. Raised by the pagan Vikings, Uhtred has to decide whether to support Alfred in his endeavour to eliminate the Viking presence from the land, or stand with those who raised him.
Bernard Cornwell began his career in television before relocating to the USA. Unable to get a green card, he turned his hand to novel writing which allowed him to stay in that country. He is now a well established author of historical novels, most notably his series about the Napoleonic Wars featuring Rifleman Richard Sharp. He has written several other series, including one about King Arthur containing a fantasy element. His books are always full of well researched detail.
I have previous read and enjoyed all of the Sharp novels. Although I've read some of his other series, I haven't really found as much enjoyment in them, possibly because they were not about periods of history which interested me and also contained subject matter which also didn't appeal. However, having read the back cover blurb on The Pale Horseman, I thought I'd give it a try hoping that it wouldn't matter that I hadn't read the first book in the series.
At the beginning of the book is a glossary of place names, something which came in very handy during the reading of this book. Many Anglo Saxon names have remained fairly unchanged but others have changed beyond all recognition.
The story is told in the first person by Uhtred from the perspective of an older man who is looking back on events in his young life. Although born a Saxon, Uhtred has been raised as a pagan by the Vikings who raided his parents lands in Northumbria, taking them for their own. His Viking upbringing has given Uhtred somewhat divided loyalties as he sees the good (and the bad) in both Vikings and Saxons. This also provided an excellent plot device for giving both sides of the story.
At the beginning of this book Uhtred is newly arrived in Wessex. He's a young warrior returned from fighting the Danes and his youth makes him somewhat arrogant and wilful. He has just beaten the Danes and killed their leader, Ubba Lothbrokson, but instead of hurrying to tell Alfred, as advised by his friend Leofric, he stops off to "plough" (his term, not mine) his wife, which allows his rival Odda the Younger to take the credit and be taken into the inner circle of Alfred's court. Uhtred recognises his mistake and realises he needs to make good on this blunder if he's to gain favour with Alfred. Throughout the book, Odda proves to be something of a thorn in Uhtred's side.
Despite his arrogance and alpha male stance, Uhtred is a very likeable character whose bravura hides a good, though possibly misguided, heart. He's only twenty and a married man with a child, although this doesn't seem to stop him from "ploughing" elsewhere whenever he feels like it. Uhtred's unsure whether to support the Vikings, the people who raised him or to fight with Alfred, a man Uhtred knows dislikes him and this is causing him quite a moral dilemma.
Although Uhtred is purely Bernard Cornwell's own creation he leaps off the page as though he were a real person, complete with all the faults that humans possess. Very unlike Alfred. Though not much is actually truly known about Alfred the Great, he's reputed to have been a scholarly man, and something of a womaniser before he became a devout Christian. Alfred isn't so much of a warrior but more of a tactician. Bernard Cornwell has attempted to put flesh on his bones and paints him as a person much given to prayer and his Christianity now seems to define the man. Uhtred isn't very impressed by Alfred, the man, but recognises that they must form an uneasy alliance in order to defend what remains of Saxon Wessex.
This book may be part of a series about Alfred the Great and his struggle for a kingdom, but the hero is without doubt Uhtred. He is in the thick of all the action, some of which is very bloody. Bernard Cornwell's descriptions of the battle scenes are excellently written putting the reader also into the middle of the maelstrom of battle. There is a plan of the site of the final battle of Ethandun given in the book which I found a great help in understanding the action taking place.
This novel is gripping. It drags the reader back in time to a bloody and ferocious era where disputes were settled with sword and battleaxe, where people were surrounded by filth and stink and the Anglo Saxons were engaged in a constant fight for their survival. Bernard Cornwell describes it all so vividly that it's sometimes overwhelming and there were occasions when it was almost a relief to close the book and return to the twenty first century for a while.
I shall certainly be looking out for the third book in this series. Despite his many human failings, I liked Uhtred enough to want to find out what happens to him next.
Published by Harper Collins.
Amazon price (new) £4.59. Also available from Amazon Marketplace from 1p
Alfred the Great books
1. The Last Kingdom
2. The Pale Horseman
3. The Lords of the North
4. Sword Song
5. The Burning Land
The Pale Horseman (Book 2 of the Saxon Stories/Alfred the Great 2) Bernard Cornwell
Paperback released 2006
The second book about Uhtred of Bebbanburg during the 9th Century and the Danish invasions sees the story start where the previous book finished (The Last Kingdom). Having defeated Ubba, Uhtred made the decision the go and find his family rather than bring the news to Alfred. This is his mistake as the glory of the battle has been taken by another (Odda the Younger) who becomes an enemy of Uhtred.
Uhtred is once again torn between fighting for the Danes, whom he loves as brothers, and fighting for the Saxons who are his blood brothers. Alfred has already tried to secure Uhtred's loyalty by arranging his marriage to a Wessex Saxon woman and then gives him command of his (small) Navy. This power rests uneasily with Uhtred who is soon bored of peace and goes raiding into Cornwall.
As this is the continuing adventures of Uhtred, Cornwell needed to make the narrative interesting, whilst still showing that far from a united England that Alfred wanted, the island was still very much separate entities. In this he succeeds and shows how close Wessex was to disappearing completely.
This is a very enjoyable book, not least because of the characters that Cornwell introduces us to, whether friends or enemies (and sometimes both) so that the historical setting they are in seems all the more real. The characters we learn of this time are as varied as the last with a Shadow Queen called Iseult, a friend and priest Father Pyrlig, Hild a nun rescued by Uhtred, Danish Chieftain Svein of the White Horse, Steapa Snotor (bodyguard to Odda) and Brother Asser, a Welsh Monk.
With Uhtred we get a man who is not the most likeable, but is enjoyable to read about, the more rounded hero is much more interesting as it always means there is another story in the offing and I look forward to reading it.
The Pale Horseman is the second book in Bernard Cornwell's Alfred the Great series set in 9th Century Britain and the sequel to the bestselling The Last Kingdom. This book like its predecessor follows the character of Uhtred of Bebbanberg, a landless pagan Lord of Northumbria who, though raised among the Danes, is now married to, and lives among, the West Saxons of Wessex. The book starts with the aftermath of the battle Cynuit (the end of "Last Kingdom") in which Uhtred had slain the great Viking Champion Ubba Lothbrokson. After the battle Uhtred arrives at the court of the King only to discover that Ealdorman Odda the younger has claimed the credit for his victory - incensed and full of the arrogance of a youthful headstrong warrior Uhtred interrupts a religious ceremony and thus angers the church and the pious Christian King Alfred (Alfred the Great). This only further alienates Uhtred from the Christian Saxons and he seeks to return to the Danes who raised him. However after a sudden attack by the Vikings during Christmas celebrations Uhtred unexpectedly finds himself as the king's protector and one of only a few Saxon warriors that remain with the king. Uhtred and Alfred hide in the swamps as they seek to rebuild the Saxon army (the fyrd) and take back their land from the Vikings. Uhtred views of Alfred and the Saxons change during this time and the book culminates in a final bloody battle to decide the future of Wessex and the Saxons.
The book is a splendid story of divided loyalties as Uhtred struggles to choose between the Saxons of his birth and the Danes who raised him and whom he greatly admires and emulates. The book is also a story of desperate heroism against overwhelming odds where a few brave men seek to change the fortunes of a nation. The book contains a wonderful spectrum of rich, believable and intriguing characters from Vikings Warlords and Sword Danes to British Kings & Cornish Shadow Queens, from greedy & foolish priests to enduring peasants, desperately striving to survive as the land is plunged into turmoil.
For those of you who are familiar with Cornwell's books, such as the excellent Sharpe series, you will know what a fantastic and talented writer he his. Cornwell has a talent for intertwining real historical events and characters with fiction. Like the Sharpe series; Cornwell does a great job with this book of inserting his fictional character seamlessly into real events. This author has a great eye for historical accuracy and detail and his flowing but descriptive writing style really transports you back to the 9th century and really allows you to picture the events in the book and imagine you are there.
Coincidently the third book in the series Lords of the North has just been released in the UK. I assume this will be the last book in the series due to Cornwell's penchant of late for writing trilogies - the grail quest trilogy and the Arthur trilogy (both of which are excellent by the way)
Overall an excellent book that I would definitely recommend to all readers, especially lovers of historical fiction.
The Pale Horeseman is the compelling sequel to the bestselling The Last Kingdom. Uhtred, Northumbrian born, raised a Viking and now married to a Saxon, is already a formidable figure and warrior. But at twenty he is still arrogant, pagan and headstrong, so not a comfortable ally for the thoughtful, pious Alfred. But these two, with Alfred's family and a few of Uhtred's companions, are apparently all that remains of the Wessex leadership after a disastrous truce. It is the lowest time for the Saxons. Defeated comprehensively by the Vikings who now occupy most of England, Alfred and his surviving followers retreat to the trackless marshlands of Somerset. There, forced to move restlessly to escape betrayal or detection, using the marsh mists for cover, they travel by small boats from one island to another, hoping that they can regroup and find some more strength and support. They seek refuge in Athelney, a tidal swamp to which Alfred's kingdom has shrunk. Uhtred finds himself torn between his Danish foster brother and the winning Vikings, and his growing respect for the stubborn leadership of Alfred. He must decide whether to rebuild the Saxons' strength from his watery base and help them to take on the Vikings once more. THE PALE HORSEMAN is a splendid story of divided loyalties and desperate heroism, with a wonderful range of characters from Vikings to British kings in their Cornish fortresses, from political but passionate priests to enduring fishermen and farmers desperately striving to survive as the battle sweeps over them. Uhtred and Alfred, Vikings and Saxons, are a winning combination for Bernard Cornwell.