Bernard Cornwell – Death of Kings

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Evidently seven years is long enough to have totally forgotten you’ve read a book. I knew I had read some instalments of what used to be Bernard Cornwell’s Warrior Chronicles series and since the advent of the TV show is now called the Last Kingdom series, but I wasn’t sure which ones. After reading Death of Kings I did a quick search on this blog and found that I had read the book on holiday back in 2013. Holidays – remember those? Anyway here’s what I wrote –

It wouldn’t be a proper holiday for me without one of Bernard Cornwell’s historic novels. Death of Kings is book six of The Warrior Chronicles (I think) and I have previously read and enjoyed Sword Song and The Last Kingdom from the series. As I started reading it I had a burgeoning fear that I had already read it – that’s the problem with picking up books out of sequence as they become available from second-hand sources – but this fear was soon quelled as I realised I hadn’t. I had the ‘safety net’ of Azincourt, another Cornwell novel, waiting in the wings should my fears be realised – as it happened this book remained unread and travelled back with me.

Death of Kings continues the story of King Alfred’s oath-sworn warrior Uhtred, a pagan who fights to maintain a Christian kingdom. The king is dying and chaos is expected when he does shuffle off his coil as the Danes will try to take control of Wessex. “We are not climbing Jacob’s ladder to some heavenly perfection, but stumbling downhill towards Ragnarok” – Uhtred thinks when looking upon the ruins of Roman buildings built-in Mercia hundreds of years before his time (the early 900’s).

As one would expect, this book is steeped in history, politics of the kings of the dis-united kingdoms, and references to old place names (a handy glossary precedes the action). Apart from the odd comment here and there, Cornwell noticeably reigns in his theological musings a little in favour of telling Uhtred’s tale, which is ultimately the tale of the formation on England. Uhtred is a canny character and a brave warrior and I wish I had enjoyed these books in sequence as I have done with the comparable work of George R R Martin. (Update – dreams can come true! Here I am seven year’s later doing just that. Oh the joy!)

The action sequences are visceral, well-paced, gruesomely detailed and juxtaposed with romantic descriptions of the country Uhtred fights to protect. As the Prodigy would say Invaders Must Die! Most of the big battle scenes come late in the story, as one would expect, and as usual for this time period boil down to the microcosm of the shield-wall. At times these scenes read somewhat like a production line of death, a slaughterhouse of mud and blood, and it’s to Cornwell’s credit that this is the case. When it comes to fighting on foot with shield and sword he is a master of precise and necessarily gory description.

Death of Kings was without doubt my stand-out book of the holiday.

Having just read this in sequence and comparing it to the previous instalments, I have to say that it felt rather like ‘more of the same’ from Cornwell. Yes King Alfred dies and the various kings start scrapping for land and the body count at the end of the book is high (hence the title) with the king’s devious cousin Ethelwold falling to Uhtred’s blade after siding with the Danes, Eohric king of East Anglia dead in battle and Cnut wounded, but for me there was a bit too much reliance in the story on this big final battle sequence.

Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoyed the book (and had totally forgotten the various tricks and traps that Uhtred lays and is victim to) and love the series, perhaps more so than the Sharpe series. By the end of the book almost all the enemies of the Saxons are perished, only Uhtred’s tiresome nemesis Haesten, Danish warlord Sigurd and the aforementioned Cnut remain to fight another day. And fight they will, because Danish ships will keep coming to reap the riches of the fair isle and soon they’ll have reinforcements. Edward, Alfred’s son, is king but he is young, inexperienced and prone to listen to the bad advice of the clergymen with no idea of how to fight a war. Uhtred’s skills will be needed again.

 

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