20 May, 2009

The Lords of the North, by Bernard Cornwell. Book review

Harper Collins, 2007. ISBN 978-0-00-721970-4. 377 pages.

Lords of the North is Book 3 in Bernard Cornwell’s Uhtred series, set in 878-880 AD mostly in Northumbria, against the backdrop of the conflict between Alfred the Great and the Danes*. Historical figures such as Alfred the Great, Ivar Ivarrson, King Guthred and Abbot Eadred feature as secondary characters. The main characters are fictional.

Uhtred is now aged 21, a seasoned and highly capable warrior. After Alfred the Great’s victory over the Danes at the battle of Ethandun (told in Book 2, The Pale Horseman), Alfred and the Danes have signed a peace treaty. For the moment there is no fighting in the south of England, and Uhtred is angry with Alfred, feeling he has been short-changed after his role at Ethandun. So he returns to his native Northumbria to pursue a blood-feud against the Danish warlord Kjartan the Cruel, who murdered Uhtred’s foster-father Ragnar five years previously and now holds Ragnar’s daughter Thyra prisoner (told in Book 1, The Last Kingdom). Northumbria is riven by violence and political chaos, and Uhtred finds himself becoming the mentor and right-hand man of its new King Guthred. Uhtred hopes to use Guthred to further his revenge on Kjartan, but instead finds that Guthred is using him. Betrayed into slavery, it will take all Uhtred’s determination – and a little help from some old friends – to survive and pursue his feud to its bloodstained climax at Kjartan’s impregnable stronghold of Dunholm.

I admit that I was a little disappointed with Books 1 and 2, which is why I haven’t reviewed them here. They seemed longer on incidental detail, such as how to paint shields or burn charcoal, and thinner on story than is usual for a Bernard Cornwell adventure. I found the portrayal of Alfred unconvincing, and I found it frustrating that the first-person narrative meant I had to see everything through the eyes of Uhtred, a belligerent teenager who thinks any problem can be solved by murder if he feels like it. However, in this third instalment Uhtred is starting to grow up a little and even to recognise that other people might have their own point of view, becoming more interesting and less limited as a result. Alfred is a shadowy figure in the background, and so little is known of Northumbria around 880 that there’s essentially no history to get in the way of an exciting action-adventure yarn of the kind that Bernard Cornwell does so well.

If you’re already familiar with Bernard Cornwell’s military adventures (Sharpe, the Grail Quest, etc), Lords of the North is very much in the classic mould. Uhtred is the near-invincible warrior-hero – since the series is framed as him looking back on his adventures from extreme old age, the reader already knows he is indestructible – a loner with ties to both Alfred’s Wessex and to the Danes. The trademark battle scenes are as frequent and graphic as one would expect, and after two climactic shield-wall clashes in Books 1 and 2 we are treated to a different type of engagement in Book 3.

Uhtred’s adventures spin along with hardly a dull moment, this time taking him as far afield as Iceland. Some of the plot twists are, well, improbable, and the outcome of the battle for Kjartan’s stronghold is not much short of fanciful. But the narrative sweeps along with such verve that I just suspended my disbelief and enjoyed the ride, without bothering over plausibility (even if I did find myself saying later, “Now hang on a minute, if she could do that, how come she’d been a prisoner all this time?”).

Uhtred, the central character and narrator, is a more interesting figure than I found him in the two previous books, perhaps because he seems to be starting to realise that life is not always quite as simple as “if it annoys you, kill it, if it wears a skirt, hump it”. He is even beginning to get a glimmer that Alfred is more than a priest-ridden wimp; the two men are never going to like one another, and therein no doubt lies several more books’ worth of dramatic conflict, but there’s a hint of respect starting to emerge. Alfred’s daughter Aethelflaed, now aged 9, gets a walk-on part, so it looks as if Bernard Cornwell is still setting up to make her the heroine of later books in the series – as the historical Aethelflaed deserves. I confess I was also mildly gratified to see that I had correctly spotted her husband-to-be when he first appeared in Book 1. A feature I particularly liked about Lords of the North is that it shows the Danes and the English beginning to mingle and integrate in Northumbria.

Although this is Book 3 in the series, all the novels can stand alone and you don’t have to have read the first two books to read this one.

A rattling adventure yarn full of derring-do. Imagine Sharpe with swords and Vikings rather than rifles and Frenchmen, and you won’t be far wrong.

*Vikings, if you prefer.


Gabriele Campbell said...

Swords and Vikings are more fun. :)

Rick said...

Hmmm. It's a bit of a surprise, given the popularity of babes with broadswords, that no one has picked up on Aethelflaed.

Marg said...

I very nearly bought the audio version of this book even though I had not read the first two purely because of who the narrator is!

Anonymous said...

Interesting that he uses the name Uhtred, and then has the blood-feud motif against a Dane too. All that is coming from somewhere near history, just two centuries later and spread across three generations.... The trip to Iceland, though, not so much :-)

Carla said...

Gabriele - Oh, I don't know. I still think the first series of Sharpe novels are Cornwell's best.

Rick - Someone has.

Marg - Who's the narrator? You don't need to have read the first two to read (or listen to) the third, they can all stand alone.

Tenthmedieval - Bernard Cornwell says he is descended from the historical Uhtred, and extended the family back a couple of centuries to his fictional ninth-century Uhtred of Bamburgh. Given how little is known of ninth-century Northumbria, the gap in history is plenty big enough to accommodate that! Viking traders got around, so a trip to Iceland isn't out of the question, and as the story needs to keep Uhtred occupied for a considerable period for plot purposes, sending him to Iceland is more dramatic than just ambling up and down the North Sea :-)

Rick said...

I guess I spoke too soon!

(But now I'm curious about the author's comment that Aethelflaed was 'written out' of the A-S Chronicle.)

Carla said...

You'd have to ask the author about that. The ASC is short on detail about Aethelflaed (see the entries around 907-ish to 918-ish), but it's short on detail about everything, especially after Alfred's death. I have the impression that Edward the Elder perhaps didn't employ quite so many chroniclers? Or perhaps he and Aethelflaed were too busy reconquering the Danelaw to bother over much about getting hagiographies written. It's fashionable (and sometimes no doubt true) to claim that women are written out of history by biased male chroniclers, but the ASC doesn't seem to me to have "written out" Aethelflaed. The Annals of Ulster mention her death and call her "a very famous queen of the Saxons", and Annales Cambriae also mentions her death, but neither go into any detail of her life and career. Both call her a queen, whereas the ASC calls her "Lady of the Mercians", but that's as likely to be differences in language and terminology as any indication of a different view of her status. Maybe some of the later medieval chroniclers give Aethelflaed short shrift (they are so far removed from events in my period that I don't study them very closely), but if they do that's hardly the ASC's fault.

Rick said...

Carla - shorter you: The author perhaps un-gilded the lily, as it were, as a nod to contemporary tastes or at any rate contemporary expectations. :-)

And to help make up for Aethelflaeda's bad taste in being on the winning side! (Compare Boudicca.)

Carla said...

Maybe - at some level, a heroic defeat and a dramatic death seems to be more Romantic than success, doesn't it? It's often said that the British love a loser, and maybe that also applies elsewhere. I tend to be if anything more interested in the capable winners (Elizabeth I, Cartimandua, Aethelflaed) than the dramatic losers (Mary Queen of Scots, Boudica), but that's perhaps a minority view.

Rick said...

I first read about a specific literary tradition of noble losers in the context of Japan, but it is hardly peculiar to the Japanese. Fascination with the American Civil War seems heavily concentrated in the South, where they can't get enough of it.

But in my snark about Aethelflaed v Boudicca I was also thinking of the woman-as-victim convention, which seems very much (too much) alive. I share your bias toward capable winners, and coming out ahead hasn't hurt Good Queen Bess's ability to sell books.

maye said...

I enjoyed all three of these books via audio. Loved the reader.

Carla said...

Rick - I daresay there are all sorts of Freudian interpretations about the enduring popularity of the women-as-victim convention... I draw a distinction between characters to whom bad things happen, and characters who behave as victims. A character whose life is interesting enough to make a story is liable to experience a fair number of Bad Things (perhaps especially so in a story with a sizeable component of action, adventure and conflict in it), but it's when they start saying "poor little me" at length that I start thinking of them as a victim. If that makes any sense. It's possible to make Elizabeth I a victim if she spends most of the book whining about being forced to sacrifice love for duty and all the successful governance gets relegated to the sidelines.

I wonder if there's a certain amount of "could it have been different?" about the fascination exerted by gallant losers. They're interesting because they raise the question of whether history could have gone another way, and if so, what effect would that have had. (Plus perhaps a certain amount of Rambo syndrome: "Do we get to win this time?"). Whereas with the winning side we think we know the story already, after all, that's what happened. What do you think?

Maye - Hello and welcome. Maybe I should try the audio books just for the reader?

Rick said...

Your comment reminds me of a bit that really annoyed me in one of the Elizabeth movies. In the film, when she says the line "I will have but one mistress, and no master!" she pretty much sobs it out - not at all the way I'd picture her saying it. (The last Blanchett film also unfathomably blew off her Tilbury speech.)

Regarding heroic losers, perhaps especially Rambo syndrome. But some of it is just puzzling. If I'd been making a movie about early 14th c. Scotland I'd have picked Robert the Bruce, a more complex and interesting character who DID win. (But then, Mel Gibson seems to have, um, 'issues.' :-)

Jules Frusher said...

Yes, I've eyed the audio books for exactly the same reason - I just love his voice!

Carla said...

Lady D - Clearly I am missing something by reading the printed copy :-)

Rick - That's the one with Anne-Marie Duff (spelling?) in the title role. I don't know what they were thinking of - it felt all wrong to me, too. I preferred the Helen Mirren drama that aired at the same time, despite its liberties with history, because Helen Mirren played Elizabeth with a sizeable component of Athene. I haven't seen the recent Blanchett, not having been that taken with the first.

Um, you can say that again. Not all that much is really known about Wallace, so perhaps part of the attraction was that there was more scope to make stuff up - not that the film seems to have been unduly bothered by accuracy even when the facts are known.

Rick said...

I don't remember the actress's name, but that was probably the one. I'd have had Liz say it the same way my Catherine would, on her feet and with a strong undertone of 'Back off!' I haven't seen Mirren's Elizabeth, but I imagine I'd like it.

Factuality has never been much problem for Hollywood! A curious thing I learned is that early ballads about Wallace do have the bit about a wife/girlfrend being killed, so it may be rooted in fact. But it sort of undermines the patriotic theme - which didn't keep Gibson from also using it in 'The Patriot.' Enough said!

Annis said...

There's another (self-published) book about Athelflaed called "Lady of the Mercians", but I have to say from its description that it might be a bit hard to take seriously!
I agree that Uhtred develops character with maturity. In "Sword Song", sequel to "Lords of the North" it's quite funny to see Uhtred as a (reasonably) responsible family man :)

Carla said...

Rick - I think you would like Helen Mirren's Elizabeth. No doubt it will turn up Stateside sooner or later.

The death of Wallace's wife or girlfriend may well be factual. As far as I know, Wallace's lands were somewhere in southern Scotland, and there was enough mayhem on both sides of the border for a personal tragedy to occur. Which would have given Wallace another motive for fighting. The balladeers may also have felt that avenging a personal tragedy was somehow a higher (or more Romantic) motive than politics, which has an unfortunate tendency to the grubby.

Annis - Fenrir the she-wolf? Hmmmm. Yes, right.
I haven't read Sword Song yet, but the prospect of Uhtred as a responsible family man is one to conjure with :-)

Rick said...

I can easily imagine that the balladeers - like Hollywood - went for the basic, raw emotions that take no explaining.

As for the other Aethelflaed book, I followed the link. 'Nuff said!

Carla said...

Actually, having now dipped into the preview in a couple of places, I wonder if it may be a case of the marketing blurb being noticeably sillier than the book. Depends how much the witchcraft/sorcery/magic angle and the unlikely love affair dominate the story. I may give it a try.