Seems like it was just yesterday that I posted a book review for the Lords of the North by Bernard Cornwell. Oh wait. That was yesterday? Ha – imagine that… someone’s been doing some reading!
Today’s book review is of Sword Song, the fourth book in Cornwell’s The Saxon Tales series. Just like The Last Kingdom, The Pale Horseman, and the Lords of the North that came before it, Sword Song follows the evolving story of Uhtred Ragnarson as he serves as King Alfred’s most trusted warrior during the creation of England from the provinces of Wessex, Mercia, Northumbria, and the rest of the lands on the island. And, also like the stories in the previous three books, Sword Song is written from the perspective of an older Uhtred recounting his adventures to someone listening (we don’t know who). In this entry into the series, the story begins with Uhtred carrying out his charge to create a buhr around the town where he’s been stationed and where he lives with his wife, Gisela, and their young family.
However, as a growing force of Vikings begin to amass north of London (or Lundene as it is written in the book), Uhtred is called to capture the city and build up its reinforcements. After defeating the Vikings, Uhtred is named the Military Governor of London which puts him in control of the city’s defenses. His counterpart for civil governance is Bishop Earkenwald, who does no great service to early Christianity with his ultra-pious attitude and ability to completely aggravate the hell out of Uhtred (and, at times, the reader).
One of the major plot points in this story is the marriage of Uhtred’s cousin, Aethelred and King Alfred’s daughter, Princess Aethelflaed. The marriage eventually winds up infuriating Uthred as well as Gisela because Aethelflaed is beaten by her husband during pregnancy. Plus, the story tells us that Aethelflaed is really only 14 or 15 years old and that Uhtred views her almost as a daughter of his own. Oh, and clearly Aethelflaed is disgusted with her husband who, as you might expect, is a bit of a coward.
What adds some interest to this story is how Aethelflaed is captured during a fight with the Vikings and how two Viking brothers – Erik and Sigefrid Thurgilson – hold her for ransom. The interest level in the story perks up when it is revealed during negotiations for Aethelflaed’s release that she has fallen in love with Erik and that Erik plans to abandon his brother and escape with Aethelflaed to the northern part of the country.
It’s almost needless to say, but that plan falls through and there is a great battle in the process. In fact, there is a good amount of writing in this book and Cornwell – as always – speeds up the action during the fight scenes. Like the previous books in this series, when the action slows down so does the story and writing style. However, I’m hooked on The Saxon Tales so I keep on reading and keep on enjoying them!
Actually, my only major complaint about this book isn’t the fact that it slows down and then picks up, but rather that it feels like the book ended a few pages too early. I hate to give away then ending of books (skip ahead to the next paragraph if you don’t want to know what happens), but after Erik is killed by his brother and Uhtred rescues Aethelflaed and Osferth (King Alfred’s bastard son), the story just sort of ends. Uhtred is on the deck of his newly captured boat holding a crying Aethelflaed in his arms as he tries to console her because she is distraught over losing Erik and having to go back to Aethlred – her scumbag husband who doesn’t trust her and beats her. There is no scene where Aethelflaed is reunited with her scumbag husband or even her sickly father, King Alfred. There’s no discussion about Gisela’s health – who was pregnant at the end of the novel and at risk of dying from the pregnancy. The story just sort of ends.
I guess this is one of Cornwell’s literary devices to create a demand for the fifth novel in the The Saxon Tales – The Burning Land. Whatever the purpose of abruptly ending the story (which is unlike Cornwell), I felt that the end of the novel was rather sudden. That might just be my interpretation – if you’ve read the book, I’m interested in hearing what you think about the ending.
A few days ago on this blog I noted how I was putting myself to work by finishing a lot of the books that I’ve left half-read or half-started over the last year or two. With the completion of Sword Song, I’ve come pretty close to completing that task. The only other half-read book that I started reading earlier this year and that I have yet to complete is Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Of course, the truth is that I’ve actually downloaded the next book in The Saxon Tales and started reading it last night, so I’ll probably breeze through The Burning Land and then finish off the Tarzan book.
And then I get to start beating away at my bookshelf – which is stacked with paper copies of books that I haven’t had a chance to even look at yet.