Friday, November 21, 2014

The Saxon Tales, book series by Bernard Cornwell

I was in a mood for Vikings -- thanks to the history channel series ("Vikings"), listening to one of "The Great Courses" on the Vikings, and a recent visit to Orkney (which was ruled by Norse earls for hundreds of years). I wanted some good historical fiction about those years, preferably set in Scotland's northern islands. Bernard Cornwell's Saxon series wasn't quite exactly that, but on the plus side it is Bernard Cornwell -- whose Napoleonic-era Richard Sharpe series is a favorite of mine.

The Saxon Tales, of which there are currently 7 with an 8th on the way, and of which I've read 5 so far, follow the career of Uhtred of Bebbanburg. Uhtred is Saxon by birth, who is captured as a child by Danish Vikings. One of the Viking leaders is impressed by the boy's fighting spirit, and decides to adopt him. Uhtred grows up and learns how to fight from the Danes, who have conquered land and settled in Northumbria. He takes on their pagan religion, goes on raids with them, and loves his Danish family.

Viking silver hoard (8 kg!), found on Orkney, housed in National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh
When tragedy drives him back to Saxon life, and into the circle around Saxon King Alfred, Uhtred starts to find himself with a foot in both ways of life, and not entirely comfortable with either. Uhtred is a gifted warrior in either culture -- which, in an uncertain and tumultuous time, inevitably puts him at the center of the action. There is lots of action, and we get to go along!

Nobody writes battle scenes as well as Bernard Cornwell. Whether he's writing about Waterloo, Crecy, or the far older and less thoroughly documented battles leading to the birth of England, the reader comes away with an overview of the strategic chessboard of the entire engagement, as well as an up close and personal experience through the eyes of a soldier in the thick of the fighting. In the Saxon Tales, I was interested to read how combatants (might have made) defensive use of ruined Roman fortifications or even older hill forts -- shored up with wooden repairs, or just grabbing advantage of the available ditch and mound.

Uhtred's fortunes rise and fall throughout the series. His relationship with Alfred is a rocky one, and yet he never quite completely breaks away. Sometimes Uhtred's temper gets the best of his judgement, more often he simply fails at being a good courtier and instead speaks his mind -- and worse yet, is usually correct in what he says. Whatever his personal feelings about Alfred's behavior, Uhtred does respect Alfred's capacity as a ruler, capable of administering a large and cohesive kingdom. As much as he personally loves (some of) the quarrelsome Danish warlords, he doesn't see the same practical gifts in their governing style.
Viking graffiti from Maes Howe, Orkney,"Oframr Sigurtharsonr carved these runes."

I started reading the Saxon tales while we were on vacation, and have been buying them one by one. I've only just realized that collections are available, and I would suggest going ahead and buying them that way. If you like the books, you will have to have the entire series. I'm not sure the collections really save much money, but they certainly would save some effort in figuring out the sequence. There appear to be two collections available for Kindle, the first of which contains books 1-4, and the other books 5-7. Since I already have book 5, I guess I'll be sticking with singles.

In order, the individual titles are: 

  1. The Last Kingdom
  2. The Pale Horseman
  3. Lords of the North
  4. Sword Song 
  5. The Burning Land 
  6. Death of Kings
  7. The Pagan Lord 
The 8th book in the series, "The Empty Throne," is scheduled for publication in January 2015 -- and will be taking its place on my Christmas wish list.


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