Author: Bernard Cornwell
Genre: Historical Fiction
1st book in The Saxon Stories series
Paperback 333 pages
First published by Harper in 2004
Uhtred is an English boy, born into the aristocracy of ninth-century Northumbria. Orphaned at ten, he is captured and adopted by a Dane and taught the Viking ways. Yet Uhtred’s fate is indissolubly bound up with Alfred, King of Wessex, who rules over the only English kingdom to survive the Danish assault.
The struggle between the English and the Danes and the strife between Christianity and paganism is the background to Uhtred’s growing up. He is left uncertain of his loyalties but a slaughter in a winter dawn propels him to the English side and he will become a man just as the Danes launch their fiercest attack yet on Alfred’s kingdom. Marriage ties him further still to the West Saxon cause but when his wife and child vanish in the chaos of the Danish invasion, Uhtred is driven to face the greatest of the Viking chieftains in a battle beside the sea. There, in the horror of the shield-wall, he discovers his true allegiance.
“Wyrd biõ ful ãræd.”
I am so excited to write this review! Why? Because, long long time ago I read this book, but I hadn’t written a review because it was before my blogging era. So, since I obviously have nothing to do but reread books (hint: procrastination), I decided to reread this book and write a review! Be prepared for a review (probably more like a rant) about the first book in one of my favourite series of all time 😀
There hasn’t been a sight from the Danes in Northumbria ever since the raid in the holy island of Lindisfarne, but now in 866 AD the Danes have returned. Osbert, the 2nd son of Ealdorman Uhtred of Northumbria, is nine years old when Lord Uhtred sends his eldest son to spy on the newly arrived Danes. The young man disobeys his father’s order not to fight the enemy… resulting in his death. Now Osbert is the oldest son, and he is renamed Uhtred son of Uhrted. From that moment, everything rapidly changes for young Uhtred. His father, King Aella, and king Osbert march against the Danish army to retake Eoferwic, but without success. Young Uhtred becomes an orphan and an Ealdorman that day. From this moment onwards, under the watchful eye of Ragnar the Fearless, Uhtred grows up among the Danes, learns their ways, is instructed in the arts of Danish warfare, and is doomed to be forever torn between his allegiance to his Danish family and his English roots.
“What happens to you, Uhtred, is what you make happen. You will grow, you will learn the sword, you will learn the way of the shield wall, you will learn the oar, you will give honour to the gods, and then you will use what you have learned to make your life good or bad.” – Ragnar the Fearless.
Like I said, this is the first book of one of my all time favourite series. Some people might disagree, but I think this is truly a great example of what could have been the situation at the time. There are quite a lot of things known about this time, in comparison with other time periods, mostly because of the documentation of events by the English (*cough*Alfred*cough*). This book actually starts the tale of the creation of the England that we know today, starting with a man who had ambition (and who was actually never meant to be a king): Alfred the Great.
I was blown away by how Cornwell was able to recreate a version of the ‘England’ of that time, recreating the battles, the intrigue, and most of all the people. This story is about so much more than just Uhtred, it’s about different peoples, the clash of cultures and religions, yet also the similarities between those people. It gives an insight to what could be the Danish side of the story because, as most of us know, the Northmen weren’t really known for their historical writing. Personally, I was over the moon to find the Old English names of the cities, towns, and people. It was also great to find terms as the Witan, Feuds, Wergild, and Hides, and it didn’t stop there because they weren’t just lose terms that were thrown around, but they were actually explained en integrated in the story.
One thing that I just realised after reading the book for a second time, was the reference made to the tale Beowulf:
“And Ravn recited a long poem about some ancient hero who killed a monster and then the monster’s mother who was even more fearsome than her son, but I was too drunk to remember much of it.”
Awesome right?! I had absolutely no clue the first time that I read the book, and it’s so great to have found some of these small things in this book because of one of my courses about Old English last year. I think I don’t really have to say it, but the world building was absolutely amazing. It wasn’t simply a superficial connection to the time period, this felt right. Something else that I noticed while rereading this book was that I was more connected to the fighting scenes, simply due to my recent efforts to learn sword fighting (and actually having learned to ‘fight’ with sword and shield). Those scenes were no longer feeling like just an action scene, they felt more real, and the decisions that were made were truly understandable for the first time.
Then there are the characters, how I love most characters (because there are always those that you’d like to decapitate). Like I already said, there is so much more to this story than simply a first person narration by Uhtred. It’s not just about him, there’s no endless pit of him nagging about his feelings, time was invested in other characters as well, creating apparent differences between the Danish and the Saxon characters.
Above all, things are just as they are. Yes, there is cursing, and yes sometimes there is harsh language, but it is fitting and I can’t believe that the people back then didn’t use ‘harsh’ language.
“I once asked a bishop whether there were any women in heaven. “Of course there are, my lord,” he answered, happy that I was taking an interest in doctrine. “Many of the most blessed saints are women.”
“I mean women we can hump, bishop.”
He said he would pray for me. Perhaps he did.”
Seriously, I laughed and cried while reading this and other scenes like this one. Even if I was pressed to chose a favourite character, I wouldn’t be able to pick just one. Leofric is absolutely great (basically his role is to call Uhtred a spoiled little prick) and Alfred is just a pious genius manipulating bastard (but a genius nonetheless).
I would recommend this book to anyone, and everyone, who even remotely liked the historical fiction genre. Even if you don’t like the genre, but are willing to give it a shot: READ THIS SERIES. Really, you won’t regret it. It won’t come as a surprise, but I give this book 5 stars.
If you read this books: What were your thoughts? Who was your favourite character? And most importantly: how badly did you want to be in this story? Leave your reaction in the comment section below!
Also, if you want some more background information, do check out my Old English posts! You can find them by clicking this link.