Death of Kings

death-of-kingsDeath of Kings by Bernard Cornwell is the sixth book in the Making of England series. Or The Warrior Chronicles, or the Saxon Stories, as it’s also known.  There are at least two more to go.

Uhtred of Bebbanburg is forty-five and broke. All the money he’s ever made has been spent on keeping is oath to Alfred. There have been times when he’s been rich but this isn’t one of them. He still harbours dreams of returning to Northumbria to reclaim Bebbanburg but he doesn’t have the resources and he’s running out of time. Forty-five is old for a warrior. And then there’s the pesky problem of the promises he’s made to Alfred and Aethelflead.

This installment of the series does feel very much like a mid-series book. It’s a bit slow and not much seems to happen. Alfred dies, his nephew tries to steal Wessex from his son, and the Danes combine forces to attack. There’s the threat of betrayal from an ally and lots of riding around the countryside looking for people to fight.

As always, the writing is excellent, and Cornwell provides a masterclass in simple yet effective prose. The characters are vivid and Aethelflead had a particularly good part in this book.

Half of a Yellow Sun

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has been on my shelf for a while. I was leant it by a friend and have been feeling bad about having kept it for so long. Lately, I’ve seen Adichie’s name mentioned in a lot of the media I read and it inspired me to pick it up. I can’t say why Yellow Sunit has sat there unread for so long, except that I thought it might be heavy-going.

I was wrong. It is a beautiful read. Half of a Yellow Sun depicts the Nigerian civil war in the years just after independence from the British Empire and the short-lived existence of Biafra through the point of view of three very different characters. Ogwu is a village boy who gets a job as a house-boy to a university professor with radical views. He grows up in awe of learning and listening to the political debate his master and friends engage in. When the war comes he’s torn between looking after the family and becoming a soldier. He’s forcibly conscripted and his experience is horrific. Olanna is the daughter of a wealthy business man and was educated in London. She loves Ogwu’s professor despite her family’s disapproval. When times are easy she seems to struggle to navigate her relationships but when times are hard she’s the one that holds it all together. Richard is a white man that comes to Africa to escape his family. Before Nigeria becomes independent he thinks he has a good position. He loves Igbo art and culture, almost to the point of fetishizing it, and finds it’s purest expression in Kainene, who is Olanna’s twin. He rejects British expatriate culture and embraces Nigerian culture. After independence he finds that no one trusts him, but he stays in Biafra and doesn’t leave even after Kainene dies.

This is a big book in many ways. There is so much in it. As well as the three point of view characters there is a host of secondary characters that pop out of the page. Characterisation is good. Everyone in it is real. It’s a literary novel so it is heavy on narrative. Generally I like more action-driven books, but when the literary genre is done well it is amazing. This is done very well. The narrative builds the setting and the characters and brings the world to life rather than weighing the story down with exposition. I knew very little about this time and period of history – African decolonisation after WWII was my favourite class at university but we covered a lot in low detail – and I really enjoyed being educated about it. It was moving. I laughed and I cried. Mostly I cried.

There are some books that are so good I feel like giving up writing because I could never produce anything anywhere near as good. This is one of those books.

The Burning Land

Oh hai Uhtred. The Burning Land is the fifth in the Bernard Cornwall’s Saxon Chronicles. Regular readers will know I’m a fan and I enjoyed this one just as much as the others.

Wessex is once again plagued by Danes and Alfred still relies on Uhtred to fight his battles for him. The leader of the Danes has a woman, Skade, with him who is considered to be a sorceress. Uhtred captures her and uses her to lure Harald into an unwise attack. Skade curses Uhtred and although he wins the battles, he loses Gisela, his wife.

At Arthur’s court, a simpleton priest has a vision in which he says Skade and Gisela are the same. Alfred demands Skade is killed and Uhtred, humiliated, leaves Wessex. He goes to Durham where Ragnar is lord and finds him planning to attack Wessex, largely on the basis that Wessex will eventually attack them. Alfred is now calling himself King of the English.

Uhtred’s ultimate goal is Bebbanburg but for that he needs money and lots of it. He sails to Denmark where Skade’s first husband is said to sit on vast wealth. With few men and a cunning plan he takes the Danish stronghold but finds that the treasure is much smaller than it was said to be.  They return to join Ragnar but just before they march Uhtred finds himself ensnared again. He made an oath to Alfred’s daughter, Aethelflaed, and she has asked for his help. Her husband is trying to divorce her and she is holed up in a nunnery.

So, off he goes, because the love affair between Uhtred and Aethelflaed has been signposted since book one. Ragnar attacks Wessex and Haesten (the devious Dane ruling East Anglia) attacks Mercia. Uhtred is bound by his oath to defend Mercia. Naturally, he pulls it off with aplomb and a certain amount of work. And by the end, he’s as firmly tied to Wessex as ever and no nearer Bebbanburg.

I love these. Cornwell is a great storyteller. His characters are fantastic, the action is completely engaging and the pace is good. This was a nice change of rhythm from the last book which focussed on a single battle. It is no mean feat to have the fifth book in a series as entertaining and enjoyable as the first – and to have me looking forward to the sixth. And it’s not just because it’s got vikings in it, honest.

Last time I reviewed a Cornwell novel, The Fort, I noticed a heavy-handed use of dialogue tags. I did look out for them in this one, and they’re there, more than might be desirable, but not nearly as intrusive as in The Fort.

The Fort

The Fort is a rare standalone novel from Bernard Cornwell.

It tells the story of an early engagement in the American War of Independence. On paper the battle should easily have been won by the Americans but it turned out to be a victory for the British.

It is very closely based on fact and Cornwell manages to bring alive the cast of characters and show how personality can make a huge difference to the outcome of a fight like this.

It’s not his best work. Of course, it’s not bad by any standard, but I’ve come to expect more from Cornwell. I think it would have benefitted from another editorial pass. There were a lot of dialogue tags which I haven’t noticed in his writing before and I feel that had it had one more rewrite these would have come out. Because of that it feels rushed.

Otherwise, this is an episode of history I knew nothing about and I enjoyed the telling of it. Cornwell is very balanced in his presentation of what happened and it is hard to pick a side. There are sympathetic characters amongst the British and the Americans. I liked it, but it’s probably one for the fans.

The Shelters of Stone

The Shelters of Stone is the fifth in the Earth’s Children series by Jean M. Auel. I read the first book, The Clan of the Cave Bear, when I was eleven and I loved it. I read it many times and it remains one of my favourite books. I’d also read the other three, with declining attachment, and the last of those hadn’t been very engaging at all.

In this instalment, Ayla comes to Jondalar’s home and learns whether she will be accepted or not.

I got about halfway through and it was a hard decision to stop reading. When I was actually reading it I found it enjoyable and it was quite an easy read. I found Ayla a little too perfect, the characters were simplistic, and the dialogue a little stilted and formal. These weren’t insurmountable issues though. This is essentially a lecture on prehistory in the form of a novel and parts of it are fascinating.

I think what really killed it for me was the lack of conflict. There’s never any real doubt that everyone will love Ayla and welcome her in, no doubt that she will teach her new family how to tame animals, no doubt that she and Jondalar will come up with lots of new inventions. But given the choice of spending an hour on the train reading this or doing something else I found I was quite keen to do anything else.

The Memoirs of Cleopatra

I love a big book – it’s very satisfying. There is a depth of immersion that just can’t be achieved in anything less than 500 pages. The Memoirs of Cleopatra by Margaret George is a big book at 960 pages and it is well worth the effort.

The memoirs tell the story of the whole life of Cleopatra; from growing up in Alexandria to her death by suicide at the age of forty. It covers her relationship with Caesar, her part in the chaos after his death and the side she eventually chose. That was the side of Marc Anthony and the book details their unsuccessful war with Octavian.

Margaret George derives a lot of the events from the historical record – relying on a broad range of sources and stripping away the exaggerations and defamations of Cleopatra’s enemies. Some things are fictionalised but as much as possible is derived from the historical clues available.

It is an interesting story in that it is essentially the story of defeat all the way through. Cleopatra snatches her country from the machinations of her siblings and aligns herself with Caesar to preserve her throne. Which fateful decision sets her up for a lifetime of trying to prevent Egypt from becoming a Roman province. She fails at that, and ironically, it is a far richer prize at the end than it would have been if she had not saved it in the first place.

This was utterly engaging. The worldbuilding is very good and Rome and Egypt are fully realised. The staggering wealth of Cleopatra is effectively conveyed. I really enjoyed this.

100 Books in 2011: Sword Song

Book 4 in Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories is Sword Song. Cornwell is one of my favourite authors and I am really enjoying the Saxon Stories.

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.