Much as Uhtred hates Alfred and wishes to fully identify with the Danes who raised him, he finds himself once again drawn into the conflicts on the Saxon side instead of taking his hereditary castle, Bebbanburg, from his scheming uncle. This time, Uhtred must capture London for his cousin, Aethelred, who is marrying Aethelflaed, Alfred’s daughter and Uhtred’s friend. This book is the fourth in the Saxon Tales series, which is ongoing.
As usual, Cornwell delivers on many fronts. His books always provide exciting battle scenes, arrogant and capable main characters, and satisfying friendships and rivalries. Usually, however, Cornwell doesn’t do so well with women. They tend to be on the edges of the story, flat characters who serve as love interests and nothing else, and I’ve heard that this is the worst in the Sharpe series. I was a little worried about this here. Aethelflaed is one of my absolute favorite historical characters. We know very little about her, but we do know that she led men to battle and that she was known as “Lady of the Mercians”, effectively ruling Mercia when her husband Aethelred died. This, to our knowledge, is extremely rare in Anglo-Saxon England, so I was hoping for Cornwell to more fully portray Aethelflaed, perhaps on par with the men Uhtred fights with. She’s not there yet, but she does have a small, defiant, royal place in this series. She is still young in the series timeline, but I am hoping that Cornwell will continue to flesh her out as he writes more books.
This book also strays a bit more from the historical record, as the author’s note tells us, but Cornwell pulls it off and his fictional events seem plausible next to the real battles. He knows what he’s talking about and it’s obvious. His battle scenes are some of the best I’ve ever come across, and he just seems to be getting better; they’re not glorious heroes of war, they are flesh and blood men trying to kill each other just to stay alive. I like this perspective; I think if we thought about wars that way, we might fight less of them. (Wishful thinking?)
I’ll continue to recommend this series and I’ll look forward to the next, although I’ve no idea when it’s coming out. In the meantime, if you’re new to the series, see the first one on Amazon here, or if you want to look at this one, see here.