The Pale Horseman
By Bernard Cornwell
The Pale Horseman is book two in the King Alfred novels following The Last Kingdom.
This is my third Cornwell series and my tenth book of his overall which means nothing if you know anything about Cornwell as an author. He’s an extremely prolific writer and I’ve barely touch his long list of titles. It makes me happy knowing I still have all that reading ahead of me.
Uhtred, the Saxon raised as a Dane, is once more a pain in King Alfred’s side. Knowing Uhtred would go back to the Dane’s given the chance, he attempts to keep a leash on him but roping him in with religion and responsibility does nothing for Uhtred’s mood. Bored with a farmer’s life, he goes out raiding and meets up with a Dane named Svein who has ambition, ships, and men to back up his wild claims. Svein impresses Uhtred but he still isn’t ready to run back to the Danes, even if that’s where his heart is. Uhtred doesn’t like King Alfred but when the Danes attack, Uhtred finds himself by King Alfred’s side arguing with him over leadership and war skills. Though he never expected it, he is now doing everything he can to keep Alfred on the throne.
As a main character, Uhtred is wonderfully hateful and I mean that in a good way. He’s selfish, impulsive, violent, and a warrior through and through. He’s what I picture a Saxon raised among war faring Danes to be like. He hates his king but stands by him even going so far as to give him his oath; whether he likes to admit it or not. Loyalty means much to Uhtred but he struggles with it. He owes it to Alfred as his king but would sneak away to the Danes if he could and the thought crosses his mind more than once. When the opportunity comes up, he doesn’t go, surprising even himself but when the fight comes he avoids his friends not wanting to face them.
I know very little of Alfred’s actual history other than his being very smart and pious. This story is told by Uhtred so his portrayal is less than flattering. Being a pagan also shapes many of Uhtred’s views — his wife whom he once ran home from a battle to be with is now someone he can’t stand to be around. Her religion is a main a sticking point between the two. He finds a new woman, a pagan priestess, to replace her and while you know he enjoys her company, you also wonder if he does it just to show he’s still pagan and not willing to bend the knee to both Alfred and his religion.
Cornwell is as graphic as ever in the thick of the battle scenes — bones, flesh, and teeth crushing loudly and violently. It’s a rough time, around 870 A.D. or there about, so at least he is true to the period; something I always appreciate about his writing even if I don’t always revel in it.
It’s taken me a number of months to return to this series, not for lack of want, but because of other books that have come into my life. In fact, two additional books have been published in this series since I began reading Cornwell’s books. I don’t plan to let that much time pass between now and the next book.