Bernard Cornwell is probably my favorite current author—at least of the writers who release books regularly (I’m looking at you, George R.R. Martin). He writes mostly historical novels and has an endless bag of tricks. It’s hard to put one of his books down, he knows how to write adventure, suspense, action, romance, and has the best battle scenes in literature. Very few of his books have not been to my taste—and even then they are extremely well written. A prolific author, he wrote the best ever King Arthur trilogy (The Warlord Chronicles), a tale of an archer looking for the Holy Grail (The Grail Quest Series), the most popular British Napoleonic hero (Richard Sharpe, 21 novels and counting), a Revolutionary War hero (The Nathaniel Starbuck Chronicles), a number of terrific stand-alone medieval novels, and my favorite beloved series; The Saxon Chronicles. His writing tends to be gritty, realistic and action-packed.
The Saxon Chronicles (The Last Kingdom, The Pale Horseman, The Lords of the North, Sword Song, The Burning Land, The Death of Kings and The Pagan Lord so far), take place around 800 A.D. and are about the founding of a united England. The point-of-view character is Uhtred Uhtredson, a Saxon raised by Danes (Vikings) and currently fighting for the Saxons against them. Uhtred is a warrior, a lord and a man of power. He leads men and battles in the shield wall. He has served Saxon King Alfred for many years, but in The Pagan Lord Alfred is dead and his son Edward now rules the south.
The Pagan Lord begins with Uhtred trying to stop his eldest son from being ordained a priest. Uhtred is a pagan, and despises his Christian son as weak. When he accidently kills a priest, he goes on the run from some very angry townspeople. When his hall is burned by an enemy Dane he has few places to turn, so he tries to recapture his childhood home fort at Bebbanburg. Failing that (but gaining some valuable hostages), he comes up with a battle plan he thinks will defeat the Danes and put him back in Saxon favor. Through a series of hair-raising adventures, Uhtred joins forces with an enemy and an ally to fight the Danes in a real historical battle.
Cornwell’s battle scenes truly rock like no other writer. He is a gifted storyteller, with three dimensional characters and thrill-filled plots. One of the best things about his writing is that his characters aren’t thinly disguised people from 2014, with modern, enlightened attitudes and opinions. He understands the mindset of people from other times. He inhabits the way they think and lives in their worldview. That helps establish a realism so authentic it’s as if you’re reading something written at the time. If you like historicals and have never read Cornwell, do yourself a favor and head to the library. Just don’t expect progressive politics and 21st century attitudes. Expect real history wrapped around an incredible story. There are supposed to be several more books in The Saxon Chronicles to spin the tale of Uhtred and how England was united as one country. Hopefully the story won’t end for a long, long time. As Uhtred likes to say, “wyrd bio ful aread.” Fate is inexorable.