Uhtred of Bebbanburg is back on form. After the somewhat padded and disappointing The Burning Lands, Death of Kings is a welcome return to the storytelling that this series has mostly offered. King Alfred is dying, for real this time, and his dream of England hangs in the balance. The Danish Jarls who rule the north and much of the midlands are waiting for Wessex, Mercia and Kent to become leaderless and undirected without Alfred’s guiding hand.
Having spent most of his life fighting for Alfred, Uhtred is broke. He can barely maintain his household and a single crew of warriors. He certainly doesn’t have the money to raise the army he needs to capture the fortress at Bebbanburg, his childhood home. Disheartened at the lack of generosity from his king, Uhtred considers going Viking. Then, on his deathbed, Alfred makes up for it by giving Uhtred rich estates in Mercia. Even this is a manipulation as Alfred uses this final gift to extract a promise Uhtred doesn’t want to make: an oath to fight for Alfred’s son Edward. When Alfred dies, Uhtred is convinced that there will be an invasion by the Danes. It takes three years to come, in which the Danish Jarls Sigurd and Cnut lay traps for Uhtred and allegiances in Mercia and Cent are fluid.
It culminates in the Saxon and Danish armies chasing each other across Mercia, East Anglia and Wessex. The Danish army has too many leaders, Jarls and Kings, to act coherently, an aversion to laying siege to the fortified towns of Wessex, and many small lords just out for plunder. The Wessex army has an inexperienced young King surrounded by priests and cautious lords unwilling to take the fight to the Danes. When the battle is finally forced Edward’s army is victorious.
The historical note at the back of the book gives the archaeological evidence for the final battle and the historical evidence for the events, but much is conjecture to put Uhtred at the heart of events. In the background is the story of the Christianisation of England and a sadness for what was lost in the process.
Will Uhtred ever get to Bebbanburg?
Book 5 of Bernard Cornwell’s 11 book series The Warrior Chronicles (made for TV as The Last Kingdom), is The Burning Land.
It is late in the reign of King Alfred, around the end of the 9th century. The fictional Saxon lord Uhtred once more defeats a Viking invasion of Wessex, then is provoked into breaking his oath and leaving Alfred’s service. He goes in search of silver to raise an army so that he can capture his childhood home Bebbanburg from his uncle, but fails to get enough, so then he goes to Dane-ruled Northumbria where the Danes plan an invasion of Mercia and Wessex. Just as that starts, Uhtred is called back by Alfred’s daughter Æthelflæd, to whom he has also made an oath, and ends up fighting for Mercia. His ancestral home feels as far out of reach as it did at the beginning of the series.
This isn’t the best of Cornwell’s books, or even of this series, so this is probably only one to read if you’re already committed. It felt a little padded, especially in the first half of the book, and is mainly battle scenes with very little in between. Still, I like Vikings, I quite like an action story, and I have the rest of the series on my shelf already, so on we go.
The best bit is the historical note at the end that describes the archaeological evidence for the story’s events.
Skin by Ilka Tamke is the first in a fantasy trilogy set in Britain in the early 1st century AD. Ailia is a child without skin, which means she doesn’t know her place in the world. Rome is poised to invade and the Britons are divided between those who would fight and those who would make peace. They are waiting for a spiritual leader. Ailia undergoes several trials and may be the one they are waiting for.
There’s quite a bit I liked about this book. The cover is beautiful and is a good representation of what the book is like. It’s in first person and set entirely in Ailia’s head, which means it’s not always clear what is going on because Ailia is young and doesn’t know who can be trusted. The worldbuilding is really great and the setting is brought to life with a mystical touch.
But, I wasn’t hugely engaged with the characters and the story. The ending sort of fizzled out. It is the first in a series, but even so, the ending felt as though the story just stopped, rather than coming to any resolution, and unfortunately didn’t set up any desire for me to find the next book.
The cover says it would suit fans of Game of Thrones which I think is a bit misleading. If you’re looking for hard-bitten political, dynastic fantasy, this is not it. Skin is an emotional, mystical story. It’s worth a read if that’s your cup of tea.
I read Fools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwall because it was my employer’s Book Club read. I was fairly excited as I like Cornwall’s books. Or at least, most of them. I loved the Winter King’s series, the Sharp series and the Last Kingdom series.
Fools and Mortals is about William Shakespeare’s younger brother Richard, his quest to graduate from playing female characters to playing male leads, and the intrigue between the theatres in Elizabethan England. A play is stolen, Richard is suspected and he must get the play back to prove his innocence.
It was okay. It was a light, easy read. Maybe I had high expectations but I didn’t think this was Cornwall at his best. The plot was a bit obvious and the writing not great. The main character wasn’t very likeable, but, it occurs to me most of Cornwall’s protagonists are arrogant and reckless, so Richard Shakespeare fits the mold. It’s just that there’s nothing engaging to go along with that.
There’s a few pages at the end talking about the historical basis for the story which is quite interesting. The setting is brought to life really well with lots of little details of Elizabeth England.
Swords of Good Men by Snorri Kristjansson
Published 2013, Jo Fletcher Books
Ulfar arrives in Stenvik with his cousin Geiri, thinking this is the last stop before returning home for exile. Instead, his life is irrevocably changed. Ulfar and Geiri make a mess of approaching the ruler of Stenvik, Sigurd, on behalf of his father and has to stick around until they can make it right. To the south, Olav, devotee of the White Christ, is gathering a huge army and forcibly repressing worship of the old gods. To the north, the most fearsome Viking captains are assembling under the direction of the witch Skuld in order to destroy Olav. The battle will centre on Stenvik.
I always enjoy Viking-based fiction and this is by an Icelandic author, which gives it an authentic feel. Probably entirely spurious, but there you go. Kristjansson has a stripped back, sparse style that carries the story forward at a cracking pace. Characters and setting are brought to life with deliberate, pointed description underpinning dialogue and action. It is enough but the setting, in particular, isn’t fully realised. Stenvik is the most completely evoked but it’s not clear where it sits in relation to anywhere else.
The big battle at the end is fantastic. It was exciting, thrilling and very gory. It’s fair to say I wasn’t really expecting the ending to go the way it did.
Diversity doesn’t come out brilliantly in this book. There is a character with a crippling illness and there are a couple of key female characters (in quite a large cast). They are quite stereotypical, but it’s fair to say that’s true of all the characters in the book. Most of the women are dead by the end and so are most of the men. Two thirds of the named characters are dead at the end. Very Shakespearean.
Overall, I enjoyed it. It was fun, fast-paced and surprising.
Dreaming the Bull is the second of Manda Scott’s Boudica series and covers the period AD 47-54. Breaca and Caradoc, war leaders of the Britons, are in Wales preparing to meet the Roman invasion. Breaca’s brother Ban has become a Roman and is part of the army that Breaca must fight. Inevitably, they lose and Caradoc is captured. He and his children are taken to be part of a triumph in Rome and live there for a few years until a change of Emperor gives them an opportunity to escape. Caradoc recognises Ban, who has become the Roman soldier most feared in Briton, as Breaca’s brother and sends him home to meet her.
The book is structured around historical events and so some of the story arc is lost. It’s a very long book and sometimes feels like a bit of a slog. I found that it was best when I had a couple of hours to read and I could really get into it. There’s moments of beautiful writing and the pace is quite fast, but, for me, there is a sense of doom pervading the whole book. Breaca and her people, the way of life and communing with the gods so wonderfully imagined, don’t survive. Rome will destroy the dreamers and I find that very sad.
I didn’t enjoy Dreaming the Bull as much as Dreaming the Eagle. There was a lot I liked about it but reading it was an effort.
Fenrir by M.D. Lachlan is the sequel to Wolfsangel and is really the same story. I’ll explain what I mean in a moment.
In Fenrir, a merchant is sent to bring a French noblewoman from Paris to Rus king Helgi because there is a prophecy that Odin will manifest on earth and trigger Ragnarok. The characters from Wolfsangel (Valli, Feilig and Adisla) are reincarnated in the characters in Fenrir, along with Odin and Fenrir, and it is not clear who is who. The merchant is accompanied by a mysterious warrior to protect him, as he is not the only one seeking Aelis, the noblewoman. The Vikings beseiging Paris also want her, as do two Viking shamans.
Aelis has her own ideas about this, which is nice to see, and takes charge of her own destiny in a way that feels consistent with her Christianity and the early medieval setting. It’s a gripe of mine that writing good female characters in historical settings means giving them modern sensibilities rather than fully embodying that character in time and space.
The characters are variously working for or against the manifestation of Odin and Fenrir, sometimes both. Lachlan manages to effectively convey a sense of confusion. None of the actors is sure what it is they are supposed to do and are wary of inadvertently bringing about the thing they seek to prevent.
Fenrir has a different style to Wolfsangel. Initially, I missed the lyricism and the mystical atmosphere of Wolfsangel, but I was soon drawn into the story. The change in style reflects the change in setting and underlines that this is the second cycle of the myth. It is the same, but not the same. In the end, Ragnarok is averted, but Odin and Fenrir will continue to try to manifest and the story will play out over and over again, until one day they meet and the end of the world begins. I enjoyed this and I’m looking forward to reading the next two cycles.