Book Review: “The Pale Horseman (The Saxon Stories Book #2) by Bernard Cornwell

68528._SY475_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.

Book Review: “The Last Kingdom” by Bernard Cornwell

68527England in the 9th century was a land full of dangers and was deeply divided in the form of four main kingdoms; Northumbria, East Anglia, Mercia, and Wessex. One by one, the kingdoms began to fall to the Danes until there was only Wessex that stood in the way of complete conquest. There was a young man who became a king who stood in the way of the invaders. His name was King Alfred the Great, but he was not alone in his quest to unite all of England. His right-hand man was a Northumbrian nobleman who lost his birthright, was raised by the Danes, and had to choose a side in this conflict. His name was Uhtred of Bebbanburg, and his story begins in the first novel of The Saxon Stories series by Bernard Cornwell, “The Last Kingdom.”

This is not my first adventure into the world of The Last Kingdom. Like so many others, I have enjoyed the Netflix series based on this book series. Once I finished the television series, I wanted to read the books to see what other adventures Uhtred had during his lifetime.

Uhtred is our narrator throughout this journey in 9th century England, albeit a bit older. He began his tale in 866 when he was Osbert, the second son of Lord Uhtred of Bebbanburg, and the day the Danes attacked his home. When his older brother Uhtred is slain, Osbert takes up the name of Uhtred and is baptized by the priest Beocca. After a fierce battle, Uhtred’s father is killed, and he is adopted by Ragnar, the leader of the same Danes who have taken everything from him. Uhtred is at first treated as a mere enslaved person, but Ragnar and his family begin to treat Uhtred as one of their own as if he was a Dane. During the time with Ragnar, he is introduced to Ragnar the Younger and Brida.

To see how the Danes raised Uhtred and how he learned to fight in the shield wall was spectacular, and it shows why even though he was born in Northumbria, he believes he is a Dane. Uhtred’s relationship with Ragnar and his family is broken when one of Ragnar’s enemies kills Ragnar and his family, except for Ragnar the Younger, and Thyra. Uhtred and Brida flee and are reunited with Beocca, who introduces Uhtred to the young man who will become King Alfred and one of his military men, Leofric. All Uhtred wants to do is recover Bebbanburg, but destiny changes one’s direction in life.

This is the first book that I have read by Bernard Cornwell, and it was brilliant. The way he could craft a remarkable beginning to Uhtred’s epic tale is astounding. The interactions between Uhtred and those who come to shape him into the legendary man are enjoyable and eye-opening. Cornwell was able to weave the differences in the Danish and Saxon cultures to create a diverse world, one that is vibrant as it is deadly.

The battle sequences set this novel and this series apart from other historical fiction series that I have read. From minor skirmishes to savage shield walls and bloody sea battles, Cornwell was able to create some of the most realistic battle sequences I have ever read.

“The Last Kingdom” by Bernard Cornwell is a triumph. An absolute joy to read and one that I cannot recommend enough for anyone who wants a fantastic historical fiction adventure into 9th century England. I look forward to many more adventures with Uhtred of Bebbanburg.

Book Review: “The Last White Rose: A Novel of Elizabeth of York” by Alison Weir

58735042During medieval wars, one’s fate is often determined by the spin of the Wheel of Fortune, even for those who did not fight a single battle. One could be living a life of luxury, stability reigning supreme, and is destined to marry a foreign king or prince, but when the wheel begins to spin, all seems lost, and the things that once were as good as guaranteed fall by the wayside. This description could fit any number of stories from the past. Still, the one highlighted in this particular novel is the story of the eldest daughter of King Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville and the first Tudor queen. In the first book of her latest book series, “The Last White Rose: A Novel of Elizabeth of York,” Alison Weir shows how one woman was able to ride the highs and lows of life to secure her family’s legacy and transform English history forever.

I want to thank Penguin Random House- Ballantine Books and NetGalley for sending me a copy of this novel. I am always thrilled when a new Alison Weir book is announced, whether fiction or nonfiction. I thoroughly enjoyed the Six Tudor Queens series, so when I heard that there would be a new book series with the story of Elizabeth of York being the first novel, I knew I wanted to read it. Of course, I had read her biography of Elizabeth of York, so I wanted to see how her research would translate into a historical fiction novel.

Elizabeth of York was born and raised to be a queen. As the eldest daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, it was her destiny to be married to a king or a prince to strengthen England through a foreign alliance. However, her life took a drastic turn when her father tragically died. Her brothers disappeared when they were in the Tower of London awaiting the coronation of Edward V, which never occurred. Richard III, Elizabeth’s uncle, became king, which forced Elizabeth Woodville to seek sanctuary with her daughters. A daring plan was crafted to unite the houses of York and Lancaster through marriage; Elizabeth of York was to marry a young man in exile, Henry Tudor.

The marriage created the Tudor dynasty, but that does not mean Elizabeth and Henry’s married life was full of sunshine and roses. The road to securing their dynasty was full of heartache and plenty of pretenders. The love between Elizabeth and Henry and Elizabeth’s love for her family allowed the dynasty to survive the turbulent times.

I loved the relationship that Weir was able to craft between Elizabeth, Henry, and her family. However, there were elements of the story that I disagreed with; they were minor, like her portrayal of Elizabeth’s relationship with Richard III and the idea that Arthur had been very ill since his birth. These elements did not take away from the joy I had reading this novel.

Overall, I found the first novel of the Tudor Roses series engaging and a delight to read. Alison Weir has brought the tragic yet triumphant story of the first Tudor queen to life through excellent prose and captivating details. If you are a fan of Alison Weir and her historical fiction novels, or just a fan of Tudor novels in general, you will find “The Last White Rose: A Novel of Elizabeth of York” an enchanting escape into the past.

Book Review: “The King’s Painter: The Life of Hans Holbein” by Franny Moyle

C1629377When we think of famous artists in the 15th and 16th centuries, we focus on the great European masters. Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Albrecht Durer tend to come immediately to mind. However, one man from Augsburg, Germany, revolutionized how we viewed the Tudor dynasty through portraiture: Hans Holbein the Younger. Many are familiar with his famous works of art and how they influenced how the Tudors have been perceived for centuries, but the man behind the masterpieces has been overlooked. His story and how art was understood in the 16th century is told in Franny Moyle’s latest biography, “The King’s Painter: The Life of Hans Holbein.”

Before I read this book, I did not know much about Hans Holbein, the man behind the art. I knew about his masterpieces like his portraits of Anne of Cleves, Henry VIII, and The Ambassadors, which I love to marvel at, but the man himself was a complete mystery. When this book was announced, I knew I wanted to read it to learn more about the master Hans Holbein.

Hans Holbein the Younger was from a family of artists; his father was Hans Holbein the Elder, and his older brother Ambrosius were also artisans, but they never reached the level of prestige as the youngest member of the family. Holbein the Younger was willing to break the mold and create art his way. Before finishing his apprenticeship, he signed his artwork and ensured that he was not in debt like Holbein the Elder. Holbein the Younger decided to move to Basel, Switzerland, to make his name. Here, Holbein was introduced to men like Erasmus and the ideas of humanism and Protestantism. It was in Basel where Holbein married Elsbeth Schmidt and started his family.

Holbein did not stay in Basel as he was destined to travel to England to be the painter for King Henry VIII. Holbein’s paintings for Henry VIII and his court are some of the most stunning images in 16th century England. The way Holbein was able to paint his subjects in such a life-like style is astonishing. However, when you pair it with Moyle’s information about Holbein’s circle of friends like More, Cromwell, Erasmus, and Cranmer, it adds depth to his work. The amount of allusions and symbolism in these works of art is astounding, and you can spend hours just analyzing one piece at a time.

It is a spectacular biography that any Tudor or art fan will adore. Franny Moyle has created a vivid image of Holbein’s world that could stand side by side with one of his masterpieces. I purposely took my time to read this book slowly to absorb every minuscule detail that Moyle included about Holbein and his world. I know it is a book that I will personally reread in the future. If you want a definitive and delightful biography about the man behind the canvas, I highly recommend “ The King’s Painter: The Life of Hans Holbein” by Franny Moyle.

Book Review: “River Kings: A New History of the Vikings from Scandinavia to the Silk Roads” by Cat Jarman

53242328 (1)When we think of Vikings, a few images come to mind. It is either the cartoonish image of warriors with horned helmets or blood-soaked warriors from TV shows like The Vikings. They are seen as men and women who fight Christians in England and France and sometimes into North America, but we do not see them in the east. With archaeological digs and discoveries being made recently, what can the artifacts tell us about the Viking world? In “River Kings: A New History of the Vikings from Scandinavia to the Silk Roads,” Dr. Cat Jarman takes her readers on a journey of discovery, following the trail of a single carnelian bead.

I have read a few books about Vikings, and of course, I have watched historical dramas about this period, but I wanted to know more. When I heard about this particular title, I was captivated by the prospect of learning something new about these warriors that have interested us for centuries.

Dr. Cat Jarman is a bioarchaeologist and field archaeologist passionate about discovering the truth about the Viking Age. She explains how each discovery was made and what scientific processes to discover the truth. We can figure out where these people might be from and what they ate during their lives through the teeth and bones of the bodies. But what is left beside the bodies gives us clues into what the Vikings were doing during their lifetimes, giving us a better understanding of these men and women from Scandanavia.

We began our journey in 2017 when Dr. Jarman possessed a single carnelian bead. The bead was discovered in Repton, along with a mass burial that included the bodies of a father and son. This single bead takes her on a journey to discover why the Vikings had this kind of bead and what other artifacts she found along the way might tell us about this group of people. From DNA analysis to silver coins that might have been used to buy enslaved people, statues of women in armor, nails from ships used to transport the warriors across the sea and rivers, and graffiti that was left behind give us hints about the Viking lifestyle.

Before I read this book, I thought Vikings and their journeys were limited to England, France, and Scandinavia because they are the most popular stories. Still, the Vikings traveled as far as the Middle East and perhaps India and the Silk Road. The way Dr. Jarman balanced scientific and archaeological research with the historical and mythological narrative into a thrilling book to read.

“River Kings: A New History of the Vikings from Scandinavia to the Silk Roads” by Cat Jarman is a masterpiece that anyone who loves history, Vikings, or archaeology will adore. If you think you know the history of the Viking Age, I urge you to read this brilliant book. I can’t wait to hear more about Dr. Cat Jarman’s research into this age and what else will be discovered soon.

Book Review: “Hamnet” by Maggie O’Farrell

43890641._SY475_The Black Death has ravished England and Europe for centuries. Although the plague in the 16th century was not as devastating as in previous centuries, it still was a horrific disease that killed thousands. For example, in Warwickshire, England, a family understood how unforgiving death could be and how it can tear down even the strongest of familial bonds. The family of the playwright William Shakespeare must navigate the sudden loss of their beloved son while they keep their family together. “Hamnet” by Maggie O’Farrell is the story of the death of one child and how his death affected so many people.

When it comes to this book, it was one of those titles that I had heard so many good things about it, but I waited for a while until I bought it for myself. I wanted to understand why it was such a beloved novel.

It should be noted that O’Farrell does write in the present tense, which is somewhat unusual for a historical fiction novel. Since I do not read many books written in the present tense, it took me a few pages to feel comfortable with the narrative. We witness Hamnet rushing all over town to find his family as his twin sister Edith lays sick in bed, fearing that she is ill with the plague. We then switch to a different scene where we see the mother named Agnes, who is deemed eccentric and unusual, fall in love with a penniless Latin tutor who is the son of a glover. These two storylines seem separate, but when you realize how they connect, it shows how strong the love between Agnes and her husband was and how she fiercely loved her children.

In the end, it was not Judith who died but Hamnet. His death shifts the entire tone of this book, and we see the whole family grieve in different ways. Grief is painful for everyone, but Agnes’s grief is debilitating. Often, O’Farrell would have a scene in this novel or a line to make me want to cry. Hamnet’s death and the aftermath have been one of the most emotional rollercoasters I have read all year.

This novel was spectacular in the way it was written. Although the present tense did throw me for a loop at first, the story and its emotional weight were nothing short of impressive. It may have been about the Shakespeare family during the late Tudor dynasty, but it can translate to any family dealing with a pandemic, past or present. It is a novel that transcends time that anyone who loves historical fiction will devour. If you want an elegantly written book with a poignant storyline, “Hamnet” by Maggie O’Farrell should be on your to-be-read pile.

Book Review: “Rebellion in the Middle Ages: Fight Against the Crown” by Matthew Lewis

58661950In human history, when citizens have disagreed with a new law or those in charge, they often stage a protest to show their frustration. When their voices are not heard, people often turn to rebellions and revolts to make sure their opinions matter. We might think that revolution and rebellion as a form of protest are modern ideas, but they go back for centuries. Revolutions and rebellions shaped history, no more so than in the middle ages. In his latest book, “Rebellion in the Middle Ages: Fight Against the Crown,” Matthew Lewis examines the origins of the most famous rebellions in medieval England and how they transformed the course of history.

I want to thank Pen and Sword Books and Net Galley for sending me a copy of this book. I have been a fan of Matthew Lewis’ books for years now, and I wanted to read his latest book. The topic appealed to me, and I wanted to see something new about these rebellions.

Lewis begins with the Norman invasion and those who resisted William the Conqueror as king to understand the vast history of rebellions in middle ages England. The most famous of these rebels was a man named Hereward the Wake. We then move to the Anarchy, a battle between cousins, Empress Matilda, the rightful heir, and Stephen of Blois, her cousin and the one who would inevitably be King of England. Empress Matilda’s son Henry II would become King Stephen’s heir, but the first Plantagenet king had to endure numerous rebellions from his friend Thomas Becket and his sons.

Moving into the halfway point of the middle ages, Lewis explores how the first and second Barons’ Wars were fought over the rights of the average citizen kings like John were put in their place with the Magna Carta. Some rebellions had other goals, like the deposition of Edward II in favor of his son Edward III and Henry of Bolingbroke’s revolt against his cousin Richard II, and of course, the Wars of the Roses with the deposition of Henry VI. It was not just the nobility that decided to rebel against the monarchy, as we see with the Peasants’ Revolt, led by Wat Tyler, and the Jack Cade Rebellion. The cost for rebellions could be extremely high, as men like Simon de Montfort, Hugh Despenser the Younger, and Richard Duke of York would find out.

Individually, every one of these rebellions would have numerous books dedicated to deciphering the intricacies of why the rebels did what they did. However, Lewis has taken on the mammoth task of combining these tales into one comprehensive nonfiction book easy to read for novices and experts alike. This book is another triumph for Matthew Lewis. If you want an excellent book that examines the origins of medieval rebellions and how they impacted English history, “Rebellion in the Middle Ages: Fight Against the Crown” by Matthew Lewis is the ideal book for your collection.

Book Review: “The Tale of the Tailor and the Three Dead Kings” by Dan Jones

57841287As the weather gets colder, the leaves turn brilliant colors and fall from their trees, marking the perfect time of the year to snuggle with a blanket, a cup of tea, and a good spooky tale. Many would reach for a modern supernatural story, but ghost tales have been hiding in archives for centuries. One such story comes from the time of King Richard II. It was first found and transcribed from Latin in 1922 by medievalist M.R. James. Dan Jones has taken on the challenge to retell this story for a modern audience. Initially written by an unknown monk of Byland Abbey, this medieval ghost story is called “The Tale of the Tailor and the Three Dead Kings.”

I want to thank Head of Zeus Books and NetGalley for sending me a copy of this book. I am a big fan of Dan Jones and his historical nonfiction books, so I was thrilled when I heard about this title.

Our tale begins with the tailor named Snowball and his horse Borin traveling home from Gilling to Ampleforth one November night. All of a sudden, Snowball is attacked by a raven that transforms into a grotesque dog. The dog gives Snowball a mission that only he can complete, to find a specific priest to ask for absolution for a criminal with no name and whose crime we do not know. If he does not return to the same spot where he has met the dog, there will be consequences.

To give readers even more information, Jones includes the story of how M.R.James came to find the tale and why he chose to bring this story into the 21st century. He also tells the story of Byland Abbey and includes the original Latin text for those who feel ambitious to translate it themselves.

I am not usually a fan of creepy ghost stories, but I found this tale entirely enthralling, and it sent chills down my back in a matter of pages. Even though Jones does not include that many physical descriptions for characters like Snowball and Borin, I can picture this tale playing out. For his first venture into the world of fiction, I think Jones does a brilliant job, and I hope one day he will make an anthology of medieval ghost stories. If you want a delightfully ghoulish ghost story that is perfect for fall, I highly recommend you read “The Tale of the Tailor and the Three Dead Kings” by Dan Jones.

Book Review: “Women in Medieval England” by Lynda Telford

36762203As students of history, we understand that aspects of society change all of the time, and sometimes the change is rapid, and other times it is positively glacial. One of those aspects of culture that we have seen slow and gradual change pertains to women’s rights. Today, women have more rights than they did in the past, and they can have careers, but is this a novel concept? What were the lives of women like in other periods of history, like the medieval period? In Lynda Telford’s book, “Women in Medieval England,” she explores women’s lives from the Anglo-Saxons to the Tudors to give us a picture of what rights and responsibilities women had during this period.

I want to thank Amberley Publishing for sending me a copy of this book. The title of this book is what drew me to it as I have read many books about individual women in medieval England, but never a comprehensive study. I wanted to learn more about women from every echelon of medieval society and how their lives differed from our own.

Telford begins her book by exploring the women who lived during the rule of the Anglo-Saxons. Reading about their experiences and the laws that dictated their lives is a critical aspect of Telford’s argument that medieval women did not have much more freedom than their counterparts from other eras. It may seem strange that as time moved on from the Anglo-Saxons to the medieval dynasties, the Plantagenets and the Tudors, women had less freedom to choose how they lived their lives. During the plague, women were called to work more to make up for men who died, but even that did not last long. Women were told how to live their lives from the men in their own families and even the church.

Telford has researched the topic of medieval women rigorously, and it shows. She has a passion for this subject, and it is demonstrated throughout this book with everything from letters to court cases. Every aspect of a woman’s life is taken into account to give her reader a better understanding of medieval society.

My problem with this book is that Telford focuses so heavily on the negative aspects of a woman’s life, like prostitution and domestic violence, that it is difficult to find the good parts of the life of a medieval woman. It was a bit too dark and depressing for my liking. I have read other books about strong and independent medieval women, but I do not see it here in this book. Telford is so focused on presenting her argument that Anglo-Saxon women had more freedom than medieval women that it obscures the facts that she does present. In short, she needed to show both the good elements and the harmful elements of the lives of medieval women to present a more balanced argument.

Overall, I think it was a decent book. This book is well researched, and it did present a side of medieval life that I was not expecting. I think it was a bit dark but informative. If you want a comprehensive study of women’s rights and lives during the medieval period, I recommend reading “Women in Medieval England” by Lynda Telford.

Book Review: “Usurpers, a New Look at Medieval Kings” by Michele Morrical

Pen & Sword Book Cover / Jacket artwork

In medieval Europe, to be considered a strong king, you must keep a firm grasp on your crown, or those who see you as weak will take advantage. These men were known as usurpers throughout history who steal the throne through combat or by illegal means. Some of the most well-known kings in English history have been categorized as usurpers, but is this a fair assessment of their mark in history, or is it a case of propaganda changing their legacy? In her debut nonfiction book, “Usurpers, a New Look at Medieval Kings,” Michele Morrical explores the lives of six English kings who bear that title to see if it makes sense with the facts of how they came into power.

I would like to thank Net Galley and Pen and Sword Books for sending me a copy of this book. When I heard this book was published, I wanted to see how Morrical described a usurper and which king she considered usurpers. I have never heard of a book that focused solely on those who stole thrones in England, so I was excited to see how well it read.

Morrical breaks her book into six sections, with each part focusing on one specific king and his rise to power. She focuses on William the Conqueror, Stephen of Blois, Henry IV, Edward IV, Richard III, and Henry VII as examples of rulers in English history known to be usurpers. Morrical writes biography vignettes to give her readers an understanding of how they came to power and who they had to remove from the throne to become the next monarch. In some cases, it meant starting a new dynasty, and in others, it was just a continuation of the family’s lineage, but it was a different branch of the family tree. The biographies tend to get repetitive, especially with the sections dedicated to the Wars of the Roses. If you are new to these kings and the events of their lifetimes, the repetitive nature will help you understand how everything is connected.

I think Morrical can improve if she writes another nonfiction book by using quotes from primary sources and other historians to strengthen her arguments. I wish she had included discussions from chronicles or other primary sources from around the times that these men became rulers to see the consensus of the time towards the new king. It would have added an extra layer to the stories, and readers could see how our definition of a usurper king would have compared or contrasted to the views of the past. I would have also liked Morrical to have discussed whether being a usurper king had a positive or negative connotation. Many kings on this list were considered game-changers when ruling England and transformed how England was viewed in the grander scheme of European politics.

I think for her first book, Morrical does a decent job of presenting her viewpoints about certain kings and presenting the facts about their lives. One can tell that Morrical is passionate about usurpers and understanding why they took the English throne from their predecessors. Overall, I think it is not bad for a book that combines the lives of six kings of England into one text. If you want a good introductory book into the lives of usurper kings, you should give “Usurpers, a New Look at Medieval Kings” by Michele Morrical a try.