My rating: 4 of 5 stars
It is 885 on the island that will one day be called England, and it is a time of relative peace. The northern part of the island is ruled by the Danes and in the south, Wessex, Alfred, who will later be known as "the Great" still is king. Uhtred, the Saxon raised as a Dane, still holds true to his oath to serve Alfred. His renown has grown throughout the island. He is Alfred's most formidable warrior.
Uhtred, though, has settled down a bit. He is now 28 years old and has a wife whom he loves and two children with another on the way. He has land and position and, though he still exults in the joy of battle, he is no longer so eager to seek it out. He knows the costs of battle as well as its rewards.
But the fragile peace is not to last. Vikings have invaded and now hold the ancient Roman city of Lundene on the Temes and they hope to dislodge Alfred from Wessex and take over all the South. Moreover, they have a plan for doing this. It involves tricking Uhtred into helping them. They convince him that a dead man has risen from his grave and is able to prophesize about the future. His prophesy for Uhtred is that he will be king of Mercia. Uhtred is tempted to throw in with the Vikings to make it so. He is saved from making a foolish mistake by his friend, the Christian priest Pyrlig (a very interesting character, by the way), who informs him that the "dead" man is not risen from the dead. It is all a clever ruse.
Uhtred goes back to Alfred in time to see the king's 13-year-old daughter, Æthelflæd, given in marriage to an odious man who brutalizes her. Some of the more distressing parts of this story concern how all the so-called Christians, including Alfred, turn a blind eye to the brutalization of this child. Even the daughter of the king has nowhere to turn for protection in this society. It is the Christian philosophy of that time that her husband owns her and can do whatever he wants with her. Imagine what life might have been like for women in a lower part of the society.
Then Æthelflæd is kidnapped by the brothers who hold Lundene and Uhtred is sent to ransom and retrieve her. Most of the rest of the story details his mission to do so and how he accomplishes that. It will come as no surprise to readers of this series that it involves a bloody, bloody battle.
I find Cornwell's depiction of the England (or what will become England) of this period to be very descriptive and compelling. One can almost see the estuaries and inlets, the hills and woodlands, and smell the stinking towns. I think these descriptions must be close to the mark of how things really were.
Also, the writer's attention to the history of the period and to portraying it accurately is one of the reasons that I read these books. In order to do that, he gives us a lot of hacking and bashing and general bloodletting as well as ordinary unpleasantness in the day-to-day lives of common people. I admit some of this is more than I can stomach and my eyes glide right over some of those scenes. But, on the whole, the interesting characters, the situations, the detailed descriptions of scenes, and, particularly, the historicity of the tales are enough to keep me coming back for more.
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