Uhtred is nowhere nearer Bebbanburg. He’s busy building forts to protect Wessex from the Danes and raising a family. Then some Danes invade London, try to convince Uhtred to join them by promising to make him King of Mercia so that he will bring Ragnar to join the cause.
At the same time, Uhtred’s cousin Aethelred, is married to Alfred’s daughter, Aethelflaed and becomes the Lord of Mercia. Not king though; Alfred doesn’t want a King in Mercia. Alfred commands Uhtred to drive the Danes from London. He gives Aethelred the nominal command of the mission.
They win the battle for London and the Danes take refuge in the Kingdom of East Anglia from where they raid Wessex. On one of these raids, Aethelflaed is taken hostage and an enormous ransom is demanded. If it is paid, the Danes will have enough money to raise an army capable of overrunning Wessex. Uhtred is sent to negotiate and discovers that Aethelflaed has fallen in love with one of the Danes and they want to run away together. Uhtred is fond of Alfred’s daughter and knows that her husband is violent and jealous, and if she goes with her lover then the ransom won’t have to be paid and Wessex will be safe. So he agrees to help them escape.
I think I was grinning from the minute I opened this book. I like the character of Uhtred. It’s told in first person but from the point of view of the elderly Uhtred looking back on his life, so the character can be presented as arrogant and impulsive, but with the self-deprecating awareness of experience. It’s extremely likeable. Uhtred is a torn man. He’s bound by oaths he doesn’t want to keep and which prevent him following his dream. I can certainly identify with that.
A good third of the book is taken up by a detailed description of the battle for London, which is very exciting, but the consequence is that the plot feels quite thin in this book. I don’t remember thinking that for the previous three. However, it is gripping and the Saxon Britain is fully brought to life. As always, Cornwell’s skill is evident and the writing is excellent. I thoroughly enjoyed it and am looking forward to book five.