England is in danger of falling to its Danish invaders. The kingdoms of East Anglia, Northumbria, and Mercia have already fallen; all that stands in the way of complete Danish domination is Wessex and its king Alfred. Yet this king is more of a saint than a warrior, so Alfred desperately needs a man who knows how to fight. A man like Uhtred of Bebbanburg is a skilled warrior even though he doesn’t always see eye to eye with Alfred on matters of faith. When Alfred and his family become fugitives, he must rely on Uhtred to help restore him and his family to ensure Wessex does not fall. This is the premise of book two of The Saxon Stories series by Bernard Cornwell, “The Pale Horseman.”
Cornwell begins this book where we left off in “The Last Kingdom” after the battle of Cynuit and the death of Ubba by Uhtred. Uhtred believes that he will be treated as a hero by Alfred and will receive rewards, but he is wrong. Instead of going straight to Alfred after the battle, Uhtred dallies to rescue his Christian wife Mildrith and his son Uhtred, which allows his rival Odda the Younger to take credit for Ubba’s death. Furious at his king, Alfred shows how naive he is, forcing Alfred to humiliate Uhtred in front of the entire royal court by penance; Uhtred decides to take his men and his friend Leofric on some raids in the northern part of England.
Uhtred falls for the beguiling beauty and shadow queen Iseult during this raiding expedition, even though he still has a wife and child at home. Torn between his sworn loyalty to the Saxons through Alfred and the love for the Danes that raised him as a boy and taught him to fight, Uhtred must find his path and follow his destiny wherever it may lead. Unfortunately, destiny’s path for Uhtred and Alfred led to the near-collapse of Wessex when the Danes invaded, forcing Alfred and his family to seek refuge in the most unlikely of locations, in the middle of a swamp. It is here when everything seems so dark, and all hope is lost when Alfred and Uhtred choose to bury the hatchet for the time being and fight for an idea of a united England.
Cornwell expanded the world of Uhtred and Alfred to give us a glimpse of the conflicts that shaped England in the 9th century. With the growing conflicts, Cornwell grows his colorful cast of characters. We are introduced to Aethelwold, the slimy nephew of Alfred who desires the crown., the warrior nun Hild who is willing to fight for what she believes, and the vicious Viking leader Steapa. With new conflicts come new elements of grief, loss, rage, and renewing hope in our characters as they struggle to survive in such a turbulent time.
If you want to embark on another adventure with Uhtred of Bebbanburg after reading “The Last Kingdom,” I recommend reading “The Pale Horseman” by Bernard Cornwell. I enjoyed “The Pale Horseman” just as I did when I read “The Last Kingdom.” Cornwell’s writing style is so engaging that sometimes it didn’t feel like I was reading but watching these stories play out on the page.