In this novel, Cornwell spins an exemplary tale following the Northumbrian boy, Uhtred, set in Anglo-Saxon England before it was actually England, but instead a land of many minor kingdoms. Uhtred is the heir to an estate in Northumbria, Bebbanburg, but when his father and brother are killed by Vikings and he is taken prisoner, his uncle seizes the castle and it seems that his future as a nobleman is over. On the other hand, he is only a boy, so he doesn’t mind, and he grows to love his Danish captor, Ragnar, like a father. The book follows their adventures and traces Uhtred’s development from a boy to an accomplished adult warrior.
This is a great book. Uhtred is a likable character, despite his arrogance. He admits when he wasn’t prepared in his youth, but his older persona, who is ostensibly telling the story, shines through fairly obviously and so there’s never any doubt that he is very capable and survives. The book is extremely engaging and absorbing. Cornwell makes Anglo-Saxon culture very understandable and it’s clear that this is an area of history which fascinates him. It fascinates me, too, so I loved all the little tidbits he tossed in, even the ones I already knew. The historical characters are all real and seem fairly accurate to their real selves, particularly the very pious and forward-thinking Alfred. I can’t wait until Aethelflaed, his daughter, grows up in the next few books, as she is without question my favorite historical figure. The Vikings are depicted as real people, though they are certainly much more eager for battle. The only problem with the book really is that the church is so negatively stereotyped and piety is seen as very negative, so those among us who are Christians may be offended, but since that’s in Uhtred’s character and he is telling the story, I think the viewpoint is understandable, even though not actually true.
I particularly liked Cornwell’s use of the historical note to tell us what he made up and what he did not, as well as his use of Anglo-Saxon place names rather than modern ones. It gives the book a much more authentic atmosphere, and gave me some linguistic fun (as well as historical contentment) as I tried to decipher the names on my own rather than look in the handy glossary.
Overall, this book is great. The next book I buy will certainly be THE PALE HORSEMAN, number two in this series. Highly recommended to anyone who appreciates historical fiction.