Author: Bernard Cornwell
Title: The Lords of the North
Series: The Saxon Stories #3
Today I was supposed to publish a review of P. Djèlí Clark’s A Master of Djinn, but, as The Saxon Stories’ protagonist Uthred would say,
Wyrd bið ful ãræd – Fate remains inexorable
Having started Clark’s novel after finishing The Lords of the North I haven’t done A Master of Djinn any favors; in fact, I’m actually pretty close to DNFing it – not because it’s so bad, (it isn’t that bad, after 1/3 it’s just mediocre and way too similar to Kate Daniels for my liking) but because Cornwell’s book was so much better.
With three books already read I feel I’m justified in saying that The Saxon Stories series is among the very best of what historical fiction genre has to offer. It’s well researched, believable, carefully constructed (or reconstructed, at least in part), dramatic, funny and heart-breaking in turns. The previous installment, The Pale Horseman, turned out to be one of the best books I’ve read in 2020; while The Lords of the North is slightly weaker, due to some repetitiveness in structure, it’s currently one of the best reads of 2021 for me.
But ab ovo. Bernard Cornwell’s The Saxon Stories series is set in 9th century England, torn by Viking invasions and weakening Saxon rule. At the time of the first book, The Last Kingdom, there remains only one Saxon-ruled kingdom in the whole England – Wessex, ruled by Alfred. The main protagonist of the series, Uthred of Bebbanburg, is a dispossessed Saxon lord(ling), raised by Vikings as their own. A Saxon and Dane in one, Uthred son of Uthred is an exceptional protagonist, due to his dual upbringing uniquely positioned to give us a relatively measured account of the turbulent times in England. Don’t be misled, though: Uthred is no priest nor scribe, dabbling in letters and bowing to gods; he is a warrior born and bred, with all the prideful cockiness, absolute belief in his own skill and fate, and a total lack of humility. He’s also pretty clever, even if far from wise, and incredibly lucky – but you would have to be to survive in those times. But the most winning characteristic of Uthred is by far his generous, open heart: beneath the arrogant façade hides an innocent, eternal optimist, who sees the world as a place of wonder and his glass as always at least half-full.
Uthred’s youthful insolence and stupidity, and his early inability and disdain for scheming and dishonesty might’ve become grating if not for the fact that the whole Saxon Stories series is written from the perspective of Uthred as an old man. He’s a wonderful protagonist, very self-aware, wise with hard-earned wisdom of years and knowledge of human behaviour, humbled by life and yet still proud. And so, our narrator smiles indulgently or laughs outright at his younger self, forgiving him his dumbness, thick-headedness, and the total self-centeredness because he knows that they soon will be beaten out of him, one way or another.
By the book number three, The Lords of the North, Uthred is already 21, a seasoned warrior who had survived countless battles and duels, who had stood in the dreaded shield wall (though that part might be historically inaccurate, as there’s some evidence that Vikings might have preferred a loose formation in fight ;)), who had lost his loved ones and had made his fortune, and now thinks that his life experience makes him well-equipped for an independent, adult life. Boy, is he mistaken. I won’t write anything more for fear of spoilers, but let me just say that The Lords of the North showcases a lot of opportunity for growth for Uthred, and Uthred – willingly or not – matures considerably during the nearly three years covered in this book.
The Lords of the North is a very rewarding read. Cornwell knows how to spin the yarn, how to write in a way that drags the reader completely into his world. Uthred’s story comes to life seemingly effortlessly, told with an enviable storytelling skill and flare. The first book in the series was admittedly a bit choppy; but already by the second, he had it all under control, carefully structuring the plot, populating the world with amazing, believable characters, deftly mixing historical events with imagined ones. By the third book, everything flows with incredible smoothness – and bite. After all, it’s a tale about Vikings. Gory details are simply part of the deal. But battles, sieges, and duels, however riveting and suspenseful, are only one element of the whole: there are religious tensions and discussions, a convincing take on the causes of the slow Christianisation of the Danes; shrewd political manoeuvring and implementation of long-term strategies; colourful, plausible images of Saxon and Viking life from the 9th century England; spot-on characterization which makes both the main protagonists and the side characters become real, living people, shown in all their ambivalence and complexity, in their human imperfection.
I thoroughly enjoyed The Lords of the North and will continue with the series, which has already turned into one of my “sure reading bets,” alongside Asher’s Polity series. I need such a refuge – especially when the current reads turn out invariably meh or mediocre 😉 – then a guaranteed good book is necessary to lift my mood and scare off any lurking reading slumps.
A side note on the Netflix series: The Last Kingdom is a relatively faithful adaptation of the books, and pretty enjoyable at that, but beware: every season covers material from two books. So, to the regret of my wonderfully patient husband, recently we had to pause watching the second season right in the middle because I refused watching what I had not read 😉. Actually, to be completely honest, it’s no better when I watch it after reading, because then I’m all grumbly and 100% in “The Book Was Better” mode :D. The fourth book is waiting for me in the library, though, so all good!
All in all, The Saxon Stories series is immensely enjoyable, wonderfully imagined, and exceptionally well-plotted and written. Uthred son of Uthred is a unique, memorable protagonist, a figure intentionally larger than life, as he accumulates stories of countless real Saxon-Danes in his own. Cornwell is careful to point out, in an afterword, which parts of his yarn have historical roots, and which are the product of his imagination. Such respect for a reader is another thing which I love in my historical fiction – so well done!