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 The Pale Horseman (The Warrior Chronicles, Book 2)


The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell

The Last KingdomThis is the first book in a series known as The Warrior Chronicles that tell the story of the formation of England from the coming together of the separate Saxon kingdoms in the 9th and 10th centuries.

The book is written in the first person, the narrator being Uhtred, a Saxon who is aged ten at the start of the book. He is the son of a Northumbrian nobleman, whose possessions include what is now known as Bamburgh Castle, but Uhtred’s father and older brother are killed by invading Danes and he is taken into the household of a Danish warrior. He learns the Danish ways of fighting, of building and sailing ships, and their relationship with their gods (who are also the gods of those Saxons who have not turned to Christianity). He feels more Dane than Saxon, but he never forgets his Saxon heritage.

Through the next ten years Danes pour across the North Sea and occupy Northumbria, Mercia and East Anglia. Of the major Saxon kingdoms, Wessex alone still resists (the last kingdom of the title), but the Danes are determined to conquer it, and the Britons of Cornwall and Wales are always looking for the chance to re-take their lands that had been taken by the Saxons 500 years before.

Alfred is king of the threatened land and, as the years pass, Uhtred is drawn to his side, although he finds the intellectual Christianity of the king alien.

This is Bernard Cornwell at his brilliant best. As usual, the depth of his historical research shines through and gives the book a totally authentic feel. Uhtred is fictional, but the other leading characters all existed. Cornwell brings history to life and makes it so compelling.

What is really clever is that Uhtred is narrating as an old man, but he is only 20 when this first book ends. So, the author has him narrating from the position of an old man, changed by experience, still capturing the 10-year-old’s freshness and the teenage impetuosity, but also mentioning future events that are only covered several books down the line. Very impressive.

It’s available in various formats from Amazon including as part of a collection. The Last Kingdom (The Warrior Chronicles, Book 1)