Top positive review
Living up to expectations - Historical fiction at its very best...
on 6 October 2011
I read this one in less than 36 hours, between Tuesday evening and Wednesday early morning, and just HAD to finish it as quickly as possible. The title I've given to my review sums it up, more or less. This would be true regardless of whether you love Uthred's personality and adventures or whether you are starting to get fed up with him and his story, as a few commentators seem to be. I happen to be part of the former bunch of people. I am still just as interested in the character, the story he tells and the events he lives through as I was when I read the very first book on Uthred, some years ago. I also find that each installment of Uthred's adventures is top quality (and a real treat and pleasure to read).
This is because of the author's talent. To me, this is historical fiction at its best, and it has consistently been so from the very beginning.
First, the period and events have, as usual with Cornwell, been well researched. Fortunately, some of his competitors can do as well as that, although there may only be a few of them.
Second, and much rarer in my view, is the author's modesty and honesty. Unlike a number of others, you never get the impression that Cornwell is attempting to show off his knowledge, either in the story itself or in his historical note or annexes (map, list of place names in Saxon with their modern day equivalent). Even better, he never hesitates to mention in his historical note where he has introduced fiction or fabrication in the story. Very few do this, either because they do not want to be seen as having taking liberties with the historical "facts" (but aren't these are works of fiction after all?) or because they cannot be bothered and may believe that most of their readers will not notice it or not care about it. Another strong point is that you can in effect read this book (and any others in the series) separately, which is not that frequent and the author is talented and takes enough trouble to insert sufficient information in each installment to make it self-standing without feeling the need to summarize the previous books over some dozens of pages, as some authors sometimes do in a rather boring way. So, thank you Bernard for showing so much consideration for all of your readers, as opposed to just marketing a product...
Third, well, I like Uthred as a character. I find him both credible (including his "kill-first-ask-questions-after" attitudes) and original. He both despises and defies the Church, its clerics, monks and bishops openly. This theme could already be found, in a much milder version, with Lord Derfel in Cornwell's trilogy on King Arthur. He, it is amplified but nevertheless credible in my view. After all, Uthred is a warlord brought up and trained by the Danes, and a pagan to boot. He would have little time and even less patience for the "nailed Tyrant", his mostly hypocritical self-serving servants and his philosophy of "brotherly love" so "unreal" to him. Uthred's mixture of boasting, blustering, bravery and cunning is also an interesting twist. This is not only about showing off. It is, as he alludes to in the book, about creating a reputation, living up to it, and showing that he is fearless (although he is afraid, of course). There are numerous other features that make him somewhat sympathetic, including his sense of loyalty to Alfred and his children.
Fourth, of course, there are the fights and battle scenes, all described in much graphic and gory detail. This is one of the things that Cornwell does best. We have become accustomed to this, and it has been picked up and imitated with various degrees of success by many other authors writing on the same or on other periods (Greeks, Romans, Normans etc...). Nowadays, it sometimes feels like almost a "must". You get the impression that every author writting historical fiction gets told that having a couple of gore scenes is part of the ingredients of a "marketable" historical novel. The difference with Cornwell (and with a very few other authors, such as the late and much lamented Pressfield) is that all this blood and gore makes the story "sound and feel" REAL, as opposed to being a marketing ploy. You just have to close your eyes to imagine the shield walls crashing against each other.
Very few, in my view, have managed to bring both their characters and their period to life as well as Bernard Cornwell.
Waiting for the next installment will seem like a very, very long time...