Top positive review
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Compelling, dramatic and imaginative - an excellent depiction of Alfredian England
on 18 August 2008
"The Pale Horseman" is the second volume in Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Stories series. Picking up directly from where "The Last Kingdom" left off in the spring of 877, it charts the experiences of the warrior Uhtred Uhtredsson. Born in Northumbria and raised by the Danes, he is a man of mixed loyalties who through circumstance has found himself siding with the weak-willed Alfred, king of Wessex, the only English kingdom left at that time unconquered by the invaders. Uhtred cares little for the conflict, seeking only wealth and a reputation for himself, and so it is not long before he commandeers one of his king's ships to go raiding. But the tide soon turns as Wessex itself falls prey to the Danes, and Uhtred must fight for Alfred if he wishes to avoid losing everything he has gained thus far.
As a historical adventure tale the book works very well. The battle scenes are as usual infused with pace, drama and realism - without ever becoming gratuitous. The lead-up to the climax of the novel, the battle at Ethandun, is particularly well-handled. The author has always been very good at establishing a setting and his descriptions of the landscape are always convincing, from the wild and storm-battered coast of Cornwall to the marshes surrounding Æthelingæg (modern Athelney) during winter and the uplands of Wiltshire in the spring. Enough historical detail is present, too, that it is easy to feel drawn into both the place and the era in which the novel is set, without unnecessarily burdening the narrative.
However, whereas "The Last Kingdom" had a strong narrative through-line, following Uhtred's development from childhood through adolescence into the adult world of the ninth century, "The Pale Horseman" is rather more fragmented. We follow Uhtred on various adventures throughout the south-west of England, but until the final third of the book it is difficult to feel a sense of direction or impending danger. The dialogue has a tendency to slip into modern idiom and the language and tone of the prose lacks some of the poetic quality which characterised the first book in the series.
Nevertheless, "The Pale Horseman" is an easy, compelling and enjoyable read. While it is not as strong as the first volume, it remains a good continuation of the series.