The Pale Horseman by Bernard Cornwell

The Pale HorsemanThis is the second book in the series known as The Warrior Chronicles (also called The Saxon Stories) that tell the story of the Saxons’ struggles to resist the Danish invasions and the efforts of Alfred and his descendents to unite the various Saxon kingdoms to form one Christian entity.

The title appears to come from a combination of the Pale Rider (Death) of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and a local legend that the first of the Wiltshire white horses was carved to mark the site of Alfred’s victory in a decisive battle.

The book follows on from The Last Kingdom, telling the ongoing story of Uhtred, the Saxon warrior with divided loyalties, his difficult relationship with Alfred, and the bloody campaign to prevent Wessex falling to the Danes. We hear about Uhtred’s marriage and his relationship with Iseult, a shadow queen (sorceress) of the Britons.

There is very little to like about Uhtred. He’s big, strong, ambitious and a savage fighter. What little humour there is in these first two books derives from Uhtred’s sarcastic response to the Christian beliefs of Alfred and his followers, although Cornwell does include the burning of the cakes incident and deals with it in a humorous way.

The trouble is that any sympathy I may have felt for the Uhtred character was wiped out when he joined his men to a group of Danes to brutally slay a tribe of Britons for a small quantity of silver – Britons who were Christian and pro-Alfred. It seemed a strange incident to create.

I enjoyed the recreation of south-west England as it was in the ninth century, particularly the large area of forested swampland that now forms the Somerset Levels, but overall I found the book rather disappointing. There’s lots of bloodthirsty conflict, so much that it gets rather repetitive. The fictional characters are blended cleverly with those who really existed, but at the end of the book, despite the Saxons having won a major battle, Wessex still remains the last kingdom not to be dominated by the Danes and Uhtred has made no progress towards the recovery of his lands in Northumbria. The series has a long way to go.

The book is available in a wide range of formats from Amazon.

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