Review by John for: The Pale Horseman (The Saxon Stories #2) ~ by Bernard Cornwell
A typical Cornwell historical action thriller – this one is set in medieval England during the struggles between the Saxons and the Vikings, with Alfred the Great playing a central role.
About: Danish Vikings have taken over much of the land which will eventually come to be known as England. The last major hold-out is in Wessex in the southwest, where Saxons under Alfred have managed to keep the Danes at bay. But Alfred is not a natural warrior; he is more of an educated scholar who is devoutly Christian and believes that God will help him to defeat the pagan Danes. To the dismay of his fighting Lords, after gaining the upper hand militarily he seeks to negotiate with the Danes rather than drive home the military advantage. An uneasy peace ensues.
Uhtred is a fierce Saxon noblemen who has played a key role in the latest victory over the Danes, but he remains an outsider in Alfred’s court – for he is from Northumbria and not Wessex, and has no time for the church, preferring instead the old Norse gods. It does not help that after being dispossessed of his heritage, he was brought up for a time by the Danes and feels an affinity for them. Now Uhtred is outraged that his exploits are not recognized, but in making his case he creates some powerful enemies among the Saxons and the church, and manages to further distance himself from Alfred. Uhtred longs for the friendships he made among the Danes and dreams of taking back his land in Northumbria.
In time the Danes break the truce and after a surprise attack manage to take over most of Wessex, driving Alfred to take refuge in a remote swampy region. Uhtred unwittingly finds himself as Alfred’s guardian and has to question where his loyalties truly lie. Alfred’s situation seems totally hopeless – why should Uhtred help him and how could they possibly defeat the Danish hordes?
John’s Thoughts: Just over two years ago I read my first Cornwell novel. It was set during the Hundred Years War and I thoroughly enjoyed it (link to review for Agincourt), so much so that I quickly followed up with another of his novels set during the same period (link to review for The Archer’s Tale). I do try to spread my reading around for a bit so decided to have a break from Cornwell for a while. Then, recently, I found a second-hand copy of The Pale Horseman for a few cents in a “charity shop” so decided it was time to renew my Cornwell reading.
What was it like? It is full of all of those things I’d come to expect from him – a solid foundation of real historical events and people, a sense of realism which seems to come from thorough historical research, an exciting storyline and lots of “blood and thunder” gory action. What’s not to like?
I’d have to say that on balance I did prefer my two previous Cornwell reads; nonetheless this was still fun and enjoyable. I think the thing is that the hero in this book seemed just a little bit too much of a superhero for my liking – he had his ups and downs for sure, but in the fights and battle scenes (which Cornwell does so well) you just knew that Uhtred is going to win out whatever the odds. But maybe I’m carping too much; in books like this you kind of know what to expect. After all you know the hero is going to win somehow, and as there is a solid foundation of real history you mostly know the outcome of the background story arc.
Apart from it being a fun read, one thing I did particularly like about this book was that I learned quite a bit about a period in English history that was something of a mystery to me. The dark ages after the fall of the Roman Empire were pretty chaotic, and this novel sheds light on some of the comings and goings of the Britons, the Saxons and the Vikings. It’s a period which seems to be underrepresented in good fiction novels. Anyhow, I’m now a bit more up-to-date on my heritage!
I’d rate this book 3.5 stars, and I’d strongly recommend it to anyone interested in historic fiction, life during the dark ages, or anyone who enjoys a good action read.
The Saxon stories:
- The Last Kingdom
- The Pale Horseman
- The Lords of the North
- Sword Song
- The Burning Land
- Death of Kings
The latest in the series is Death of Kings; Originally published: London; HarperCollins, 2011.
Bio: Bernard Cornwell was born in London, England, in February 1944. He was a producer for the BBC, became head of current affairs for BBC-TV in Northern Ireland, and was an editor of TV news for Thames Television in London. He came to the United States in 1980, where he has been a freelance writer living with his wife on Cape Cod. http://www.bernardcornwell.net/
Interested in recent yet ancient historical finding based around Saxons? Check out the largest hoard ever found of Anglo-Saxon gold. John and I had the pleasure of visiting one of the locations of display for this very old gold, close to where the treasure was found.
Linking to the website will give you a feel for some of the amazing artwork these people created, more than a thousand years ago. Even though it looks big in the pictures these ancient gold pieces are actually quite small and very intricate. For loads of pictures and more historical information visit the Staffordshire Hoard website: http://www.staffordshirehoard.org.uk/
Thanks for reading.