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: “Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom” by Annie Whitehead

38243840._SY475_England’s history is full of daring moves and colorful characters, but it is also very ancient compared to other countries. We often considered the “start” of English history in school as the Norman Conquest in 1066. Nevertheless, this was just a stage in the massive story of the island. We have to consider those who called England their home; those who knew England, not as a unified country, but seven kingdoms known as the heptarchy. The most famous of these seven kingdoms was Wessex, the last kingdom, but their mortal enemy had a rich history of their own. Mercia was a thriving kingdom for hundreds of years, with colorful characters that many people are not familiar with. Annie Whitehead has taken the tales of this forgotten kingdom to the forefront with her book, “Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom.” 

I would like to thank Amberley Publishing for sending me a copy of this book. I was looking forward to learning about the Mercians and why their stories are significant in Anglo-Saxon England. My knowledge about this kingdom is minutiae, although I know some famous figures, including Lady Godiva, Penda, and Aethelflaed, from other books written by Whitehead. 

Whitehead begins her journey into this kingdom’s rich history with the story of the 7th-century ruler Penda, the Pagan King of Mercia. His tale of surviving savage battles and making Mercia into a powerhouse set the standard for Mercian kings that would follow. His son and successor, Peada, would bring Christianity to Mercia, and the diocese of Lichfield, which still exists today, would be formed shortly afterward. Mercia was a kingdom that fought for survival against the remaining six realms of the heptarchy, especially against Wessex. Of course, it was not just other Anglo-Saxons that the Mercians were pitted against, as we see the rise of the Vikings with their Great Heathen Army and  Welsh princes fight for control of the isle. 

Mercia’s kings would fall into obscurity as Mercia turned from a kingdom to an earldom with the uniting of the heptarchy into one nation under one king. We know about Mercia’s history through scant details included in annuls and accounts written by men like Henry of Huntingdon and Bede and chronicles like the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Whitehead has combed every source to give her readers the most comprehensive history of a realm that has been forgotten over time. The very nature is academic, yet Whitehead tries to engage those armchair historians who might be familiar with characters like Godiva, Aethelbad, and Offa with tales of murder and intrigue. My advice for future readers of this title is to take notes as there is a plethora of information, especially royal genealogy. 

Mercia is a bit out of my comfort zone when it comes to my knowledge of its history, but that just made reading this title even more thrilling. If you want a story of one of the ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England, you should check out, “Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom” by Annie Whitehead. Whitehead has brought the tales of Mercia to a modern audience in the best way possible.