If you like your historical fiction filled with blood, battles, and alpha males, then Bernard Cornwell is for you. His list of 40+ books covers stories as diverse as King Arthur, the American Civil War, the building of Stonehenge, and Napoleon’s attempts to push Wellington out of Spain, but his current series is called the Saxon Stories: five books to date about King Alfred’s struggle to save a little country called England from the Vikings, and Alfred’s chief warrior whose exploits on the battlefield ensure that Alfred will someday be called “the Great.”
It’s an unconventional partnership to say the least. King Alfred is humorless, tidy-minded, and a fervent believer in Christianity; the strapping hero Uhtred is noisy, aggressive, and a fervent believer in Thor. The two regard each other with exasperation, mystification, and sometimes downright loathing, but the King needs Uhtred if he is ever to push the Vikings out of England, and Uhtred keeps fighting for him although his own sympathies often lie with his Viking friends. Sword Song is the fourth installment in Uhtred’s adventures, and things are looking up for him. He’s no longer chained to an oar as he was through much of the previous book (don’t ask), and he’s settled down happily with a wife he adores and a never-ending supply of battles to fight. Trouble comes in the form of Alfred’s daughter Aethelflaed, a teenage princess who has long been a pet of Uhtred’s. Now grown into an appealingly steely girl (the scene where she blackmails an oath of loyalty out of Uhtred is priceless), Aethelflaed is newly and unhappily married to an idiot who promptly manages to get her kidnapped by Vikings. Uhtred’s job, like any hero’s, is to rescue the princess. But what if the princess doesn’t want to be rescued?
Uhtred gets better and better: confident, aggressive, humorous, vital. Alfred is a pious little prat in comparison, and Aethelflaed despite her impossible name is a girl with a bent for adventure whom even Uhtred can’t push around. Start at the beginning of this marvelous Saxon Stories for the full adventure, and give yourself far more than a weekend’s worth of reading.
The priest had come to me in the summer, half grinning, and pointed out that the dues we collected from the merchants who used the river were unpredictable, which meant that King Alfred could never estimate whether we were keeping proper accounts. He waited for my approval and got a thump about his tonsured skull instead. I sent him to Alfred under guard with a letter describing his dishonesty, and then I stole the dues myself. The priest had been a fool. You never, ever, tell others of your crimes, not unless they are so big as to be incapable of concealment, and then you describe them as policy or statecraft.
— From Sword Song by Bernard Cornwell. What do you get when a Christian-born Saxon boy is raised by pagan Vikings instead? Uhtred of Bebbanburg, hero of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Series. Read my review of Sword Song this Friday.