For around twenty years, I have listed Bernard Cornwell as one of my favourite authors. The other month I finished reading Death of Kings, the latest instalment in his `Saxon' series which is worth a read if you like novels that you can come away from with the feeling that you've actually learned something interesting as a result of having read them.
Bernard Cornwell's novels usually centre around an honest man of action who has little time for political scheming, and in this series the hero/narrator is Uhtred, a Saxon who was brought up as a Viking but who fights (somewhat reluctantly) for Alfred the Great, King of Wessex and the one man standing between the Vikings and their goal of dominating all of Britain. This has formed the basis of the series so far, but in this sixth novel the focus changes as Alfred is dying, various would-be successors are getting ready to make their bids for power and the fragile truce between Wessex and the Vikings is about to fall apart.
Alfred the Great has somewhat fallen out of favour with whoever decides what should be part of the history curriculum in schools (in which there's a big gap between the Romans and 1066), even though his story is integral to the formation of what would come to be England. But Cornwell's Alfred is no warrior king. His take on Alfred as a sickly scholar who is very much the `brains behind the operation' is an good one, and having the narrator as a pagan - in contrast to the pious Alfred - allows the author to explore more fully the struggle between Christianity and paganism that he started on in the Warlord trilogy - a reinterpretation of the Arthurian legends which I still think is Cornwell's best work. I think there's a touch of the pagan in Cornwell, as the Christians of his stories are portrayed in a rather negative light. Although it clearly inspires some of the characters to do great things, organised religion is portrayed here as a force for intolerance, pomposity and repression (over the course of Death of Kings, Uhtred manages to infuriate and poke fun at several clergymen to good comic effect). In a sense, therefore, there's something very modern about these books even though they're set in the Dark Ages.