War of the Wolf is the eleventh book in the Last Kingdom series by Bernard Cornwell and follows straight on from The Flame Bearer.
An old dour Uhtred who still dislikes Christianity’s nailed god and is always on the lookout for omens sent from the Norns of fate or his Danish gods, and who is finally in possession of Bebbanburg in Northumbria, tells us that he didn’t go to the funeral of Queen Aethelflaed of Mercia. It’s downhill from there really…
Her brother, King Edward of Wessex, did and with him came a large number of troops who never left Mercia. Edward proclaims himself Anglorum Saxonum Rex which doesn’t go down well with some Mercian lords. The result is a rebellion by those loyal to the dead Queen and demanding the fulfilment of her wish that the rule of Mercia being passed to her daughter. In tandem with this unrest we learn that Norsemen have left Ireland to settle in large numbers in Cumbraland notionally part of Northumbria and under the rule of Uhtred’s son-in-law Sigtryggr.
Uhtred leaves his son Uhtred to see to the defence of Bebbanburg. With his trusty Irish sidekick Finan and less than a hundred men Uhtred the elder answers a call to relieve a rebel siege at Ceaster where Prince Æthelstan, King Edward’s son, is in charge. However when he gets there Æthelstan tells him that he didn’t send the message and doesn’t need his aid. Someone has drawn Uhtred away from Northumbria, and he vows to discover the name of his enemy. That name is Skoll – a prominent Norseman who wants to become King of Northumbria with help from his powerful blind sorcerer and band of ferocious drug-addled wolf-warriors.
To add to the plot it’s clear that King Edward wants to invade Northumbria. Uhtred will not swear loyalty to him since Sigtryggr is already king there, living in Jorvik with his Uhtred’s daughter. Instead he makes a deal with Æthelstan to kill the long-standing pain in the arse who is Æthelhelm the younger, a powerful Wessex lord, who hates Uhtred because he killed his father and who wants the Wessex throne. King Edward you see is very ill and there will likely be a fight for the throne. Prince Æthelstan is a potential candidate as successor. If Uhtred kills Æthelhelm, then Æthelstan swears not to invade Northumbria.
Without spoiling it for anyone let me say that Skoll makes a failed attempt on seizing Jorvik but becomes a target not only for a violently vengeful Uhtred but also in equal parts Sigtryggr, and not just because he’s bringing Norsemen under his banner and threatening their kingdom far more than the Scots. To up the ante even further Skoll’s death is also made a condition of a deal Sigtryggr makes to ensure peace in Northumbria for as long as Edward stays alive.
There’s the usual shield-wall battles, some archery for a change, the customary bravado by the Norsemen and inevitable blood and guts. Attention to historic detail is as usual high as is the amount of intricate plotting which, given the similarities of character names, can at times get a little confusing. However as the books have progressed the bodies have racked up and so there’s no less characters to keep track of now. Which is nice.
An interesting feature of the later pages of this book is the juxtaposition of a Christian poet’s interpretation of the final battle versus Uhtred’s memories. The Homeric posturing and speeches of the priests version of events are in stark contrast to the shit-smelling reality of the cruel battle which is comparable to throwing men into a meat grinder. Uhtred keeps putting the poet right and explaining that if he had been there he wouldn’t have lasted five minutes.
I have to say that, while it was a great read, I didn’t enjoy this book quite as much as some of the others in the series and I think that may be in part because quite understandably Cornwell can no longer place Uhtred so regularly at the heart of the action. I think the character is around sixty years old at this point and so an old man by 10th-Century standards.
Also there’s a theme running through the book that Uhtred thinks himself cursed and his outlook is mostly depressive throughout. Again it’s perfectly in keeping with the progression of the character and his reactions to the events of the story, which are far from joyful, but it does make it a rather gloomy novel.