Book Review – Sword of Kings by Bernard Cornwell – historical fiction

Here’s the blurb;

“Uhtred of Bebbanburg is a man of his word.

An oath bound him to King Alfred. An oath bound him to Æthelflaed. And now an oath will wrench him away from the ancestral home he fought so hard to regain. For Uhtred has sworn that on King Edward’s death, he will kill two men. And now Edward is dying.

A violent attack drives Uhtred south with a small band of warriors, and headlong into the battle for kingship. Plunged into a world of shifting alliances and uncertain loyalties, he will need all his strength and guile to overcome the fiercest warrior of them all.

As two opposing Kings gather their armies, fate drags Uhtred to London, and a struggle for control that must leave one King victorious, and one dead. But fate – as Uhtred has learned to his cost – is inexorable. Wyrd bið ful ãræd. And Uhtred’s destiny is to stand at the heart of the shield wall once again…”

I sometimes feel that this series of books has long since run its course, but Sword of Kings, Book 12, had me intrigued just from reading the blurb.

Lord Uhtred has firmly moved into a time period I know, study and write about, and while sometimes it’s hard to read the way another person treats ‘your’ characters, I thoroughly enjoyed the starkly different interpretation of events surrounding King Edward’s death, because, quite simply, there is no ‘right or wrong’ when writing about this period. It’s a very much anything goes scenario, and into this, Lord Uhtred, bored and old, having finally captured Bebbanburg, is allowed to take centre stage.

Uhtred is older, but not wiser, and once more, if it wasn’t for the intervention of others, he would certainly not make it to the end of Book 12, hale and hearty.

Uhtred has as many enemies as normal, and his loyalties are split, but the will is strong to enact some revenge when he realises his ships are being attacked by an old enemy he ‘s made an oath to kill. Heading South, with the news that King Edward is either dying or dead, while plague pushes its way ever northwards, there’s a great deal of time spent on board ship. There’s a battle on a ship, and then another battle, and then there’s tides, rivers, currents, different boats, oars, sails and many other ship related activities. (It does get a little repetitive). There’s the Farne Islands, Kentish coasts, London, rivers in Mercia, London once more and then a bridge as well as a wall.

The action is pretty full-on but somewhat repetitive. Uhtred makes any number of bad decisions, and then the quest for revenge drives him on, even though it probably shouldn’t.

In effect, Uhtred turns the tide of ‘history’ once more, and not necessarily to his favour.

The old rivalries between paganism and Christianity continue, as does Uhtred’s unease with the plans the new king has for Northumbria, and for him. It’s these scenes that I find most tedious. I would like a little more nuance to Uhtred, but it seems his character will never develop more than it has. BC tries to make Uhtred appear as more than just a thug by adding a few women to the cast, as well as a host of orphans, and having his relationships with them testify that he isn’t ‘a ‘bad man’ just a righteous one who must abide by his oaths.’ Essentially, if Uhtred likes you, then that’s good, but if not, then you’re in trouble.

There are many elements to the story that I would change – the insistence on Anglo-Saxon place names being one of them, the ship ‘lingo’ another one – but hey, it’s Uhtred. You know what you’re getting from the start, and you won’t be disappointed, although you might feel a bit seasick!

Here’s to the next book.

Sword of Kings was released on 3rd October, and is available from here:

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