I would kill them instead.”
Uhtred of Bebbanburg, the Saxon-born, Danish-raised warrior who has reluctantly become a fighter for Alfred of Wessex, is back in this sixth volume of the Saxon Stories. With his usual blend of confidence, physical strength, and gleeful sarcasm at the ready, he recounts a critical period in the making of England – and his involvement therein.
King Alfred is finally dying. The Danes lie in wait, eager to invade and tear apart the Christian realm he worked so hard to build. Uncertainty and suspicion are present from the outset, an effect that nicely mirrors the soon-to-be-fractured state of the kingdom. After foiling a murder attempt at his winter residence up north, Uhtred must return to duty when Alfred asks him to negotiate a treaty with King Eohric of East Anglia. The meeting place seems oddly chosen, and Uhtred smells something fishy.
Uhtred has grown to admire Alfred over time, but he doesn’t feel the same loyalty toward Alfred’s heir, the ætheling Edward. Not only does Edward mistrust him, but Uhtred knows he will have a hard time convincing him that peace-making isn’t the way to create a united Saxon country. Treachery and lies abound, not just from the enemy Danes but also from a rival claimant to the throne. While he faces Alfred’s slow but impending demise as well as numerous threats to his own safety, Uhtred makes up his mind about his ultimate goal – and how he will attain it.
If this were purely an adrenaline-based saga, Death of Kings would be an impressively entertaining read. The strategies are laid out clearly, and the action is brutal and vigorous. Cornwell excels at depicting the “battle-joy” that comes over Uhtred as he prepares to face down a deadly foe. Even pacifists may find themselves caught up in the moment! The historical background is solid and vividly described, with authentic place names giving the setting a realistic feel.
Some of Uhtred’s choices are wickedly clever, and they have his enemies running in frustrated circles. He delights in causing trouble, which makes for hilarious scenes. His taunting of the Danes at Snotengaham is meant solely to enhance his already fearsome reputation. He also has an excellent sense of how to annoy the ubiquitous priests who believe that victory can be won by prayer.
Death of Kings encompasses more than military encounters, however, and we experience a full range of emotions along with Uhtred: the assurance with which he leads his trusted men, the solemnity of his king’s final moments, and the tenderness and pride Uhtred has for Æthelflaed, Alfred’s daughter, whom he loves dearly. And while he always greets the possibility of war with eager anticipation, his encounter with a pagan sorceress in her otherworldly lair makes him shake in his boots. The consummate skill with which Cornwell evokes every aspect of Uhtred’s story and character transforms an already exciting book into a truly outstanding one.
Death of Kings is published in October by HarperCollins UK at £18.99 (hardcover, 335pp). It will appear in the US next January from Harper at $25.99 (and good luck waiting that long).