Review – The Pale Horseman

The Pale Horseman

By Bernard Cornwell

HarperCollins Publishers

ISBN: 9780060787127

4 stars

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.

The Last Kingdom

The Last Kingdom

By Bernard Cornwell

Harper Collins Publishers

ISBN: 0-06-053051-0

4.5 stars

I’m on a mission to read all the Cornwell books in my library and that’s a rather long list so it may take me a while.  The good news is that I will be entertained by the challenge I’m setting for myself.  This latest series I’m starting features Saxons and that’s a topic I fully enjoy.

Uhtred, a boy of ten, joins his father in battle against the invading Danes.  He’s the son of a nobleman and, thanks to the death of his oldest brother during the battle, heir to his father’s English lands.  In the same battle that leaves his father and brother dead, Uhtred is captured by the Danes.  Earl Ragnar, the Danish chieftain that defeated his father, raises Uhtred as his own teaching him to fight like a Viking.  Expected to fight the English alongside his Danish tribe, he fights an internal battle between his loyalty to Ragnar, who loved him as a son, and to his English heritage and the new king, Alfred.  Uhtred feels little loyalty toward Alfred and doesn’t like him on a personal level, but he clings to his dream of ruling his homelands someday.  Fortunately for Uhtred, he prefers battle to loyalties and would rather fight than worry about the person on the other side of the shield wall or political implications.

The Danish way of life portrayed in this book is brutal but it’s hard to dislike the Danes simply because of the love they show for Uhtred, and even when he decides that he must fight for the English, don’t hold it against him as they value his sense of loyalty which they instilled in him.  Alfred is a thoroughly unlikable person, and along with Uhtred, I had trouble liking him but you still have to appreciate his cunning.  Uhtred managed several times to get caught up in Alfred’s plans and being young, cocky, and willing to think with his fists instead of his brain, he walks right into situations that get him in trouble.  That’s also what makes him extraordinarily likable.  He’s flawed, frequently irrational, and single minded in his thinking sometimes, but he believes what he’s doing is right and you agree with him.

Cornwell, and I have probably said this before, has an amazing talent for writing historical fiction.  The details make his stories and each time I finish a book I immediately want to pick up the next in the series.  I have been trying to pace myself so I don’t burn out because while I always enjoy his books, they tend toward the violent aspects of war and I sometimes find myself needing a break to forget the sound of swords crashing against bone.

Religion plays a large part in this story as Alfred is extremely pious but Uhtred, who veers more toward the pagan, is an equal opportunity believer who is happy to let his king think he has found god and secretly prefer to ask Thor and Odin for their assistance in battle.  It’s an amusing side-story and I’m sure one that will be developed more as these types of religious battles seem to always find a place in Cornwell’s books.  It’s never overpowering but always presents enough of an internal battle for a character to be an interesting element.

There are five books in the Saxon series and I’m looking forward to more.