Bernard Cornwell, The Lords of the North (2007)

Author: Bernard Cornwell

Title: The Lords of the North

Format: paperback

Pages: 383

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!

Score: 9/10

51 thoughts on “Bernard Cornwell, The Lords of the North (2007)

    1. Thanks! It’s all thanks to you! 😄

      So happy to “see” you, Sarah! Hope all’s well with you! 😊

      This series is amazing and I’m absolutely delighted that you introduced me to it – so big thanks again!!! 😁

      Liked by 1 person

  1. intruiging, thanks! Sounds perfect to fill the vacant slot after I finish Mantell’s trilogy, but as I’ve nearly finished The Book of The New Sun, I won’t start The Mirror & The Light soon, no 1000-page books for a few months…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Heh, I’m a bit jealous you still have Mantel to read… It was a glorious read and one I’ll probably return to one day.

      Yeah, I’m looking forward to start reading Wolfe soon! And to reading your review, too!

      This is a very good or even great series – the first three books, at least. My ratings for The Saxon Stories installments I’ve read to date are respectively 8, 10 and 9, so quite high indeed.

      Liked by 1 person

          1. We’ll see. It’s an older well-known book, I tend to get more analytical with those, but I have no real idea about an angle yet and only 70 pages to go. I’ll mark’m if I use any.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. I‘ve read Winterking from the author which is wonderful.
    As for the Saxon series I couldn’t decide to start with the Netflix adaption or read the books first. I guess I‘ll start with the films which has the advantage that I can watch them with my wife. Currently, we are finishing Vikings which sees Aelfred installed as king.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Noo, don’t do it! Read the books first! 😅 Books are really way better, with many more subplots and colorful side characters. And Uthred’s voice is so much better in the books – even though the series’ one looks the part 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve got Cornwell’s Sharpe series on tap and will probably get to it later this year.

    Very few books aren’t better than the movies for sure. I think Star Dust and The Princess Bride are the two exceptions that immediately spring to mind.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m very curious about Sharpe – read only good reviews of it. I’ll be looking forward to reading your take on these!

      Agreed! I’m thinking of getting a special t-shirt with that text for the purpose of wearing it instead of constantly repeating the words 🤣

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Well, I needed some incentive to finally start reading Bernard Cornwell – although I was not sure where to start, since he’s a very, very prolific writer – but your post solved two problems at the same time 😉 I will start with the Saxon stories, because you convinced me this is the kind of narrative I would certainly enjoy. Thanks for sharing!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading, Maddalena! 🙂
      Yes, do give The Saxon Stories a try – I believe you might enjoy it quite a lot, and I’ll be very curious to read your thoughts on it 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Couldn’t he put one tiny tiny dragon in the story? Not even just a tiny dragon seen from a distance? Then it would have been fantasy and I would have read it. I know that this is completely ridiculous from my side.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Well, no dragons, but there is a tiny teeny bit of typical Viking magic – reading the runes, honoring the gods, and believing in the fate. Maybe that will be enough?? 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  6. piotrek

    Heh, even more great historical fiction to be added to TBR… in that case, I have it in my Audible library already, so I’ll just move it up in the queue 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I know–the debate on whether to read the book before or after you watch the show is such a hard decision!. I still haven’t seen any of the Lord of the Rings movies, or any of Game of Thrones… *laugh*

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Confession time – I hate the Lord of the Ring movies! 😉 GoT I honestly don’t care about one way or the other, but the show was solid for the most part, and quite faithful – except for the last, crash-and-burn season 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ha, that’s good know know. People still try to get me to watch them, but I can hardly bear to look at a movie preview of them. LOL And re: GoT…so the last season bombed…that’s too bad (I hate when that happens, too!). What are some of your fav shows, book-inspired, or otherwise?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Well, that’s a hard one. I’m not a fan of lengthy series, usually. My favorites include Generation Kill (based on a book), Netflix’s The Punisher and Netflix’s Daredevil (both based on comics) and The Mandalorian 😁
          I was scratching my head to come up with a good series with a female lead but no luck yet…

          What are yours?

          Liked by 1 person

          1. It’s a little hard, because I don’t have access to any of the streaming providers, and I don’t have cable (an anomaly, right?).I haven’t even had the chance to see any of those that you mentioned. So, I’m going to have to go with all the Star Trek series. I also just finished Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda which I liked, but which I also had mixed feelings about. Recently, I watched a few seasons of Agatha Raisin (based on books) that I rented from the library.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Got you!
              We don’t have cable TV either (or any other), only streaming on various devices – that’s what’s cool about streaming services, you can have it basically on anything with a screen and internet connection.

              The old Star Trek is very cool, I totally agree – I’m a Next Gen generation, but I’ve seen some of the old episodes as an adult and loved them 🙂

              Never heard of Agatha Raisin, need to check it out!

              Liked by 1 person

              1. I love British mysteries, like the Cadfael series and Father Brown and all that. I recently attended a virtual lecture about “Cable and Cable Alternatives” to learn more about the options out there, like the streaming options and such.

                Liked by 1 person

                1. I’ve read the first three books in Brother Cadfael series but I’ll definitely get back to it at some point, it’s such a cool cosy historical mystery series and Cadfael is a relatable protagonist (I do love his garden!) 🙂
                  Good luck with your viewing choices, then – I’m sure you’ll be able to pick something right for you

                  Liked by 1 person

                    1. I have lavender in my garden, and like Cadfael I make small pouches with dried lavender and put them under the pillows – such a lovely smell 🙂

                      Liked by 1 person

                    1. Oh wow! I do dream of having a farm one day, and the lavender type seems like one of the least time- and effort-consuming ones and one of the most beautiful at the same time 😀

                      Liked by 1 person

  8. buriedinprint

    Hah! I’ve had that happen with a mystery series at some point, the unexpected elision of two books into one broadcasted segment. Which meant I had to hold up too. In recent years, though, I have occasionally chosen to set aside the idea of reading the books first (especially with mysteries as I don’t read very many of them nowadays) and then try to ignore the dark, nagging feeling of having let the universe down while I watch, without delay. It’s still a sad scene but not the same sort of tragedy of having watched something based on a book without having even know about it. 😮 [Lovely problems to have, of course, in context]

    Liked by 1 person

    1. 😂😂 heh, I’m actually okay with watching shows/movies based on books I don’t care about – the problem starts with those based on books I really like! I still hate LoTR movie adaptations, but the GoT TV series, despite many liberties the show took with the source material, was enjoyable enough (till the last season, which was abominable – though not based on books ;))

      Like

  9. Glad to hear you enjoyed this one so much. It’s great to have a series as a “refuge” you can return to knowing it will be a great read. Poor A Master of Djinn though, it’s always difficult to follow a class act! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, having a “book refuge” is necessary, especially when, like me, you’re reading a lot of new risky books 😉

      I gave A Master of Djinn a break, read a non-fic in between, and now the Egyptian UF reads better – still not great, but better 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Pingback: Familiar Territory: Tagged by AK of Everything Is Bad for You Once Again | Extra Life

  11. You sure didn’t hesitate one second to take a jab at P. Djèlí Clark before tackling this review hahahaha Also didn’t know that show was based on this series. That’s pretty cool to know. I heard great things about this author and his books, and your thoughts on this one make me even more likely to give it a try someday. Thanks for sharing! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh man, I still haven’t finished this book, it’s killing me how it drags on and on… 😂 So glad to have Dragon Ball to pick me up!!! 😁

      This series is really superb. And addictive, too – plus has the undeniable advantage of being finished! I can’t recommend this one enough, if you have any interest in early English/Norse history it’s a must read. Though beware, it may sour you on some other books… 🤣🤣🤣

      Liked by 1 person

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