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A Watched Kettle...
on 9 October 2011
...So goes the old saying. I was eagerly anticipating the latest installment of Uhtred's adventures in the late Saxon era, and that made the wait seem to stretch on for ages. To satisfy my desire for the Victor Books for Grown-Up Boys which Cornwell turns out, I returned to his much older Arthurian Trilogy which have been on my shelf for years. I read all three several times, and then got the Audiobook for the car.
Magnificent preparation, or so I thought. What I should have done was re-read Burning Land, to remind myself how the Saxon sagas are much shorter. But then, maybe that would have made the disappointment of Death of Kings even more acute. Yes, even an avid Cornwell Arthurian/Saxon fan such as I (I've never really got on with Sharpe) may come away disappointed. Not angry, not let down, not sad, but most certainly not satisfied.
Death of Kings is not bad by any measure. Yes, it's formulaic, but then Cornwell's stories tend to repeat the same plots (as indeed do most in the genre, so it's not really a criticism), and yes it's fairly predictable for the most part. But there's one key ingredient missing; emotion.
Cornwell's usual strength - especially with the earlier books in the Uhtred series, and absolutely with the Arthurian trilogy - that of imparting great character and emotion to the main protagonists; bringing them to life, gently detailing relatively inconsequential traits, and drawing you into the character's world, their motivations, and really getting you rooting for them. It's almost entirely absent this book. Undoubtedly some of this detail can be saved, as we're now on book five, but having jumped out of the Arthurian books into this one it's very noticeable how little time is spent with the characters except to simply propel the plot forward.
Consequently, the proverbial kettle never really gets to the boil. I felt no real attachment to Uhtred, we found out little of the new characters introduced, or those formerly bit-part players thrust into the limelight, and the story just skittered along, almost as if Cornwell was willing it to finish early so he could get down the pub.
It does feel as if Uhtred has slightly outstayed his welcome in Cornwell's heart - and although we're left with yet another obvious lead to the eventual end at Bebbanburg, I rather fear that that may be dealt with in a similarly pedestrian fashion.
Nonetheless, I don't doubt it'll get rave reviews from the die hard fans, and indeed that I'll get lots of unhelpful votes for this less than complimentary review, but that's what a review is for.
Would I recommend it?
Well actually I would - not least because we've all invested some time and effort in the first four, so we owe it to ourselves to see this one through to the end. Also because it's still a good story, it's just not as well told as the previous installments.