Before reading it again last week, I read The Empty Throne, the eighth book in Cornwell’s Last Kingdom series, about five years ago. I know this because I remember reading the opening section which confused the heck out of me since it is written from the point of view of Uhtred’s son (also called Uhtred) before then introducing the main character in the last line of the section. I realise now, having read the previous book The Pagan Lord, that the author is playing with the idea that perhaps the older Uhtred died at the end of the that book. However, I don’t think Cornwell was fooling anyone really.
Apart from Uhtred’s revolting pus-oozing wound and his obsession with trying to read omens anytime he sees a bird or two, I had no recollection of the rest of the story until the very last pages where I suddenly remembered the fate of Uhtred’s daughter. So the surprise was spoiled but it didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the book overall. I don’t think it’s as interesting a read as the previous book, but it’s still pretty good as part of the ongoing story of the foundation of England.
I remember enjoying reading the book first time around too, although I doubt it made much sense then outside of the context of the ongoing series. It relies heavily on you knowing all the characters and their relation to each other and would be especially confusing to a reader reading it as a stand-alone novel due to almost every main character having a name that starts with ‘Aethel’.
The story is relatively straightforward and concerns itself mostly with who is going to take over the rule of Mercia once Uhtred’s cousin Aethelred is dead. At the start of the book we follow a badly injured Uhtred as he travels with his son to Gleawecestre (Gloucester) where the Mercian Witan, the meeting to decide the next Lord of Mercia, is to be held. Eardwulf, the brother of Aethelred’s mistress, is the leading contender for the Lordship, and Aethelred’s estranged wife and Uhtred’s lover Lady Aetheflaed is likely to be sent to a nunnery.
Uhtred discovers a plot to capture or kill the son of King Edward’s first wife the young Aethelstan. King Edward is now married to the daughter of the main Ealdorman of Wessex Aethelhelm. Aethelhelm is the power behind the throne of Wessex and wants to make sure his grandson inherits the throne which to all intents and purposes also rules Mercia. I told you there were lots of Aethel’s to keep track of!
Uhtred pretends to be dying and leaves Gloucester and hurries back to his home, his daughter Stiorra and Aethelstan. After a fight with some of Aethelhelm’s troops, Uhtred sends most of his men, including Aethelstan, to Chester, while he and Stiorra return to Gloucester. They kidnap Aethelred’s daughter to stop her marrying Eardwulf and therefore strengthening his claim to the Mercian rule.
Uhtred returns home and is joined by the rest of his men on the way to Aetheflaed’s stronghold in Ceaster (Chester). Along the way Uhtred stops at an abandoned fort. The household priest, Cuthbert, tells Uthred that Danish warlord Cnut’s sword Ice-Spite which inflicted his worrisome wound needs to be found so it can be used to heal it. Eardwuld catches up with Uhtred but is unable to attack immediately because of flooding. Eardwulf demands Uhtred’s surrender, he refuses and is ready to face overwhelming odds before, not for the first time, the cavalry arrives in the form of Aethelflaed and her men.
Eardwulf unsuccessfully tries to kill Uhtred and the Lady Aethelflaed. Uhtred outwits his opponent and forces Eardwulf to flee with only a few loyal men. Eardwulf’s flame-haired sister, Edith, is taken prisoner and it’s not long before she ends up in Uhtred’s bed. When Aethelflaed learns of this she is not best pleased but Edith says she can heal Uhtred once they find the sword, and more importantly she knows where to find it.
Uhtred returns to Gloucester for the Whitan. He learns that Eardwulf has popped back ahead of him, stolen some loot and is now an outlaw. Much to Aethelhelm’s anger, Uhtred half tricks / half convinces the gathered nobles to select Aethelflaed as the new leader of Mercia.
Edith tells Uhtred that the much-hated monk Asser took Ice-Spite to Wales before he died. Uhtred sails to a monastery in Wales in search of the blade but finds out it’s been stolen by some Norsemen. He joins forces with a local king to push the Norsemen out of a settlement they’ve made and after the battle finds Ice-Spite among the horde of weapons taken from their foe. Edith sticks Uhtred with the blade like some kind of medical lance which releases a vile stream of rotten pus from inside Uhtred.
Uhtred feels remarkably better almost immediately. Cornwell himself says that the reader should be open-minded about the validity of such a procedure. The Norse they drove from Wales has reportedly joined a larger fleet who Uhtred realises may well be on their way around the coast of Wales to Wirhealum (The Wirral) and then on foot to attack Chester. Uhtred takes a ship in their wake and manages to sneak past their encampment at a new burh Aetheflaed’s men are building at Brunanburh (Bromborough) and to Chester.
He finds that five of Eardwulf’s men have entered Ceaster before him and are planning to open the main gate when the Norsemen (and Eardwulf) attack. Uhtred prepares his forces and sets a trap for the Norsemen and makes them pay dearly. The Norse leader is a dashing chap called Sigtrygger who in the face of defeat attacks Uhtred. Uhtred is still weak and if it wasn’t for the fact that Sigtrygger is distracted momentarily by Stiorra’s beauty may well have been killed by the Norseman. As it is Sigtrygger loses an eye and decides to parley his way out of trouble.
Uhtred agrees to allow the Norsemen to leave Chester unhindered after leaving half their weapons and the outlawed Eardwulf behind. Aethelstan executes him. While preparations are made for the Norse fleet to bugger off, Sigtryggr stays with Uhtred and his men for a couple of nights. Uhtred likes the fellow; maybe because he reminds him of himself in his brash youth. So when Stiorra says she wants to sail off with Sigtryggr, Uhtred lets her go.