27 October, 2009

Sword Song, by Bernard Cornwell. Book review

Edition reviewed: Harper, 2008. ISBN 978-0-00-721973-5. 360 pages.

Fourth in Bernard Cornwell’s Uhtred series, Sword Song is set in 885. Alfred of Wessex (later known as Alfred the Great), Aethelred of Mercia, Alfred’s daughter Aethelflaed and the Danish leader Haesten are based on historical figures. All the main characters are fictional.

Uhtred of Bebbanburg is now 28, married to his beloved Gisela, sister of the Danish king of Northumbria (told in Book 3, The Lords of the North). Still reluctantly oath-bound to serve King Alfred of Wessex, he is lord of the burh of Coccham (modern Cookham) on Wessex’s eastern border. Alfred and the Danes have signed a treaty, ceding north and east England to Danish rule (the Danelaw), and the land is more or less at peace. When a new group of Norse adventurers come to Lundene (modern London) bent on conquering Wessex, they offer to recognise Uhtred as King of Mercia if he will join them. Uhtred has to choose between allying with the Danes, whom he likes but does not entirely trust, and remaining loyal to Alfred, whom he neither likes nor trusts but to whom he is bound by a sworn oath. When Aethelflaed, Alfred’s lovely and spirited daughter, enters the frame, Uhtred’s uncertain loyalties shape the fate of kingdoms.

Years ago, I once persuaded a gentleman in my local bookstore who said he loved the Sharpe series but had got fed up with Bernard Cornwell’s medieval novels to try The Last Kingdom, on the grounds that it was essentially Sharpe with Vikings and battleaxes instead of rifles and Frenchmen. Well, it seems that early assessment was not too far off the mark. The Uhtred series seems to get more like Sharpe with each succeeding book. Sword Song has all the trademark ingredients: the detailed blood-splattered battle scenes; the resentful hero from the wrong side of the tracks with an unrivalled talent for violence and war; the incompetent/vicious/deceitful/hypocritical enemies in high places on his own side; a plot constructed around one or two set-piece battles. In Finan, the capable Irish warrior introduced in Book 3 (Lords of the North) and now Uhtred’s loyal friend and comrade-in-arms, there may even be an echo of Sergeant Harper. Sword Song is located firmly in the south along the River Thames, so Ragnar and the likeable Guthred of Northumbria don’t make an appearance, but Finan and the ebullient Welsh warrior-turned priest Father Pyrlig inject a cheerful note into the proceedings.

All the usual features of the Uhtred series are present too: Vikings are cool; whenever Uhtred kills someone he quite likes he makes sure to put a weapon in the man’s hand so they can drink together in the corpse-hall after death; Christianity is “…a religion that sucks joy from this world like dusk swallowing daylight…” and its senior clergy are cruel woman-oppressing hypocrites; Uhtred miraculously overcomes impossible odds. Fans of the series so far will know pretty much what to expect.

Sword Song is a quick, easy and undemanding read. The plot is somewhat average, and in places it feels almost as if it has been padded out to fill in the space between the battles (e.g. a dozen pages devoted to an obscure Old Testament ceremony with no evidence of it ever having been used by the relevant characters). As one would expect, the set-piece battle scenes are suitably bloodstained, brutal and graphic. For me the highlight was the assault on Lundene in the middle of the book, with its attack and counter-attack and its bitter fighting among the gates and ramparts of the old Roman fortifications.

Poor Aethelred of Mercia gets a very unflattering portrayal, and probably has grounds for joining the Support Group for People Unfairly Maligned in Historical Fiction. Not that much is known about Aethelred, and he may well not have been the greatest ruler ever, but there’s no evidence that he was a stupid wife-beating snake. It’s his misfortune to be in the right historical place at the right time to be cast as a fictional hero’s antagonist, and I suspect he also has to be cast as a loathsome creep so that the reader won’t mind when Aethelflaed cuckolds him. Bernard Cornwell, to his credit, acknowledges in his Historical Note that he has probably been extremely unfair to the real Aethelred.

The Historical Note also acknowledges that there is more fiction in Sword Song than in the previous Uhtred novels. In particular, the major plot strand involving Aethelflaed is completely fictional, as acknowledged in the Note. I can see its attraction; it has the same obvious dramatic appeal as a meeting between Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I. I can’t help wishing, however, that something more interesting had been made of it. The historical Aethelflaed was a remarkable woman, a highly effective ruler of Mercia whose death was respectfully noted in the Annals of Ulster (“U918.5. Ethelfled, a very famous queen of the Saxons, dies”) and Annales Cambriae (“917. Queen Aethelflaed died”). In Sword Song, however, she is merely beautiful and haughty and spends most of the novel being taken here and taken there, willingly or otherwise, by the various men in her life. Perhaps this is because she is still only about fourteen or fifteen, and maybe she will come into her own in the later novels in the series. I hope so.

Entertaining adventure yarn with Cornwell’s trademark battle scenes carrying a rather slight plot. Not his best, but still an enjoyable read.

17 comments:

Rick said...

Of course the Church takes a pummeling here. Isn't that pretty much one of the Standard Rules for popular historical fiction set between Constantine and the French Revolution?

Carla said...

It certainly seems to be a Standard Rule for Bernard Cornwell popular fiction :-) Given his childhood, you can understand why. It's such a fixture it gets quite endearing, like counting all the times Uhtred gives a sword to an enemy he's slaughtering so they can drink together in the corpse-hall.

tegels said...

Carla, thought you might like Anglo-Saxon Archers:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/mbarchers/F2693941?thread=6951670

Annis said...

Having just finished "Burning Land", I notice a pattern starting to show up with the "Saxon Stories" - they seem to be developing along the lines of the Sharpe books, shorter, and with each episode based around a particular significant battle. In "Sword Song" it was the battle for London, in "Burning Land" it’s the battle of South Benfleet.

In his author’s note at the end of "Burning Land" BC has some derisory comments to make about current revisionist theories which would have us see the Vikings as big cuddly blond bears just in need of a bit of land to farm and a good Saxon woman to set them straight, rather than savage warriors :) He also admits to playing fast and loose with the characters of King Alfred’s daughter, Aethelflaed, and her husband, Aethelred of Mercia. Cornwell cheerfully confesses that there is absolutely no evidence that Aethelred was the weak and devious snake depicted in "Sword Song" and "Burning Land", and that he is taking shameless advantage of the fact that setting his stories in a relatively obscure period igives him the opportunity to use some artistic licence!

Carla said...

Tegels - thanks for the link :-)

Annis - Glad it's not just me who thinks the Uhtred series is getting increasingly like Sharpe! It makes perfect sense; the Sharpe formula has been immensely successful, and Bernard Cornwell is a master at it.

The extreme 'cuddly teddy bear' stereotype is probably just as daft as the previous extreme 'bloodthirsty savages' stereotype. Extremes usually are...

In the absence of detailed historical records there's no alternative but to make things up to fill in the gaps, and it's greatly to his credit that he says so in the author's note and doesn't try to claim otherwise. I can't help feeling sorry for Aethelred, though!

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Many thanks for the review Carla. I'm not sure if I'll get as far as reading this one. I've read and quite enjoyed the first in the series and we have the others on the bookshelf, but if I'm reading about real people, even if their history is shadowy and little known, I hate it when they are given characteristics just for the convenience of the plot. Of late it has become one of my see-red complaints! Suspect I am on the cusp of grumpy old womanhood!
Good to know what you and Annis think. Thank you!

Kailana said...

I really need to read Bernard Cornwell. I have several books by him on my TBR pile, but it takes me forever to read him

Gabriele C. said...

I enjoy these books as what they are: a fun action romp.

Since I'm pretty anti-Church myself, I don't mind the church pummeling. ;)

Annis said...

In a shocking breach of the Bernard Cornwell Standard Rules, in "Burning Land" Uhtred at one stage actually kicks a sword away from a dying opponent's reach to make sure that he doesn't get to Valhalla :)

Carla said...

Elizabeth - if the review was useful to you, I'm glad. It's a tricky one; we don't know Aethelred wasn't a snake. I think if he'd been quite as stupid Alfred would have seen through him, but on the other hand he might have been the only senior Mercian nobleman left by then. Didn't you say about the first book in the series that you enjoyed it as bordering on fantasy? That approach probably suits the others in the series as well; an entertaining read but not to be taken too seriously, like an action film.

Kailana - which of his books do you have? I think the first series of Sharpe novels are still his best.

Gabriele - yes, a fun action romp is a good description.

Annis - didn't he do something similar to Sigefrid in Sword Song? I haven't got the book to hand now, but I'm sure I remember Uhtred saying to Sigefrid that his (Sigefrid's) brother Erik was already in Valhalla, that Uhtred was going to join him there in due time, and neither of them wanted Sigefrid's company. Right at the end, almost on the last page.

Steven Till said...

I'd love to read your review but I still haven't read Lords of the North yet, and I'm afraid it will spoil things for me. Also, I just read your post on inter-marriage between Britons and Saxons. It was very interesting.

Alianore said...

Thanks for putting in a link to the Support Group! I really must get round to reading this series sometime; they've been sitting on the bookshelf for far too long.

Maybe someone could compile a list of Bernard Cornwell Standard Rules? Sounds like they'd be fun to read. :-)

Carla said...

Steven - glad you found the post interesting. Let me know what you think of Lords of the North and Sword Song when you read them!

Alianore - you're welcome. If/when you get round to reading the series I'll be interested to hear what you think.

Annis said...

That's right, Carla- I'd forgotten about the wicked brother. Maybe we're seeing the addition of a new Bernard Cornwell Standard Rule to the list - any opponents Uhtred thinks would make worthy corpse-hall companions get the sword, those who've acted dishonourably don't.

Carla said...

Annis - Yes, that does seem to be an emerging theme. Must be great for Uhtred to be able to dictate who gets to go to the afterlife! I admit I find that idea faintly creepy, if I think about it :-)

By the way, I may be being very dim here, but what exactly had Sigefrid done that was so wicked? He captured London and fought unsuccessfully to keep it; he captured Aethelflaed and wanted a ransom for her; and when his brother attacked him on the ship he fought back despite being crippled and killed him. None of that seems particularly to deserve being locked out of Valhalla and relegated to Hel. Nothing like as bad as Haesten's oath-breaking. What did I miss?

Annis said...

"Wicked" is an Uhtred judgement. Perhaps Uhtred finds fraticide particularly repellent, but you get the feeling that he wouldn't have been so judgemental if Erik had killed Siegfrid instead. Uhtred's attitude is rather hypocritical anyway, given that he'd have no compunction himself about killing his own uncle and cousins at Bebbanburg if he ever got the chance. The Uhtred approach to moral issues is pretty straightforward and flexible- what Uhtred approves of is good, what he doesn't like is bad! He certainly doesn't make a reliable arbiter when it comes to deciding where others should spend their after-life :)

Carla said...

Annis - that's a pretty good summary :-)