A-raiding we will go…
😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
When young Uhtred’s father is killed during a battle with the invading Danes, Uhtred is taken captive by the Viking Ragnar, who is amused and impressed by the courage the boy had shown in the fight. Ragnar treats him more as a son than a captive, though, and Uhtred, whose relationship with his own father was somewhat cold and distant, comes to love Ragnar, and quickly takes to the freedom of the Viking life, far from the tedious lessons in reading and Latin forced on him at home. But Uhtred knows that one day, when he is a man, he wants to regain the castle and land of his forefathers, which is currently being held by his uncle who in his absence has usurped him as Ealdorman of Bebbanburg.
The story takes place in the late 9th century, when the Danes were in the process of amassing territory and control throughout what would later become England. By the time Uhtred is old enough to become a full-fledged warrior, the Danes have control of three of the four old Kingdoms and only Wessex is still fully independent. But in Wessex, a young leader is set to become King – Alfred, a man very different from Ragnar and the Vikings, but with perhaps just as much steely determination under his pious exterior. Odin and Thor may be helping the Danes, but Alfred has a newer God on his side, one he believes in fervently. This will be a battle over competing religions as much as disputed territory. There’s quite a lot of humour around early religious practices, especially on the Christian side – at this point in his life, Uhtred finds the warrior-like Norse Gods much more appealing than the moralistic Christian one as presented by the ubiquitous priests, and loses no opportunity to shock and provoke them.
Eventually Uhtred will find himself torn between loyalty to Ragnar’s house or to his native countrymen, serving both in turn, and always with one eye on which side is most likely to help him regain Bebbanburg.
I don’t read a lot of this type of sword and sandal epic so am no expert on the genre. But this one seems particularly well written to me and feels grounded pretty accurately in the history and attitudes of the time. There is a great deal of extreme violence, including a lot of rape and pillage and some pretty gory battle scenes, but Cornwell manages to achieve a sense of the true brutality of the time without lingering gratuitously on the details. The book is excellent on the depiction of Viking life – brutal and bloody – but they are not shown as the berserker savages they are sometimes portrayed as. These invading Danes are more than raiders – they want to settle the territory they have won, often maintaining control by allowing existing local lords to continue to rule as their clients.
In fact, Uhtred himself is the only one who comes across as any kind of berserker. He is no reluctant warrior – he revels and glories in the killing, and doesn’t much care which side he’s on. But he’s telling the tale in retrospect from when he is older and there is the occasional tiny hint that he may also have become wiser. Perhaps. In truth, I enjoyed Uhtred’s character but didn’t like him much. His lack of full commitment to either side makes him more credible, I think, than some of the single-minded heroes of fiction, but it doesn’t make him very admirable. And (this may be a girl thing) his crazed love of slicing bits off people at every opportunity didn’t endear him to me over much, fun though it was to read.
As he grows into manhood, Uhtred discovers women or, to be more accurate, the joys of sex. Again, happily, the details are largely left to the reader’s imagination. Cornwell doesn’t make a big feature of the lowly and subordinated place of women in this early society, but nor does he whitewash Uhtred into some kind of anachronistic 21st century “new man”. He makes it clear that rape was a commonplace of life, and that the Danes were not the only perpetrators. Women are objects, possessions, used either for sexual pleasure or as breeding machines, and often raped as a kind of declaration of victory in war. However, Cornwell manages to sneak a strong female character in, again not making her feel anachronistic, and there are hints that Uhtred may replace lust with love at some point as the series progresses.
This was my first introduction to this hugely prolific author and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Along with all the action, there’s lots of excellent descriptive writing – I especially enjoyed the sections relating to long-boats and sea battles, where Cornwell makes full use of the power and fury of sea and storms. I’ll happily read more of Uhtred’s adventures in the future, but I spotted that Cornwell’s newest book, due for release in October, is to be set in Elizabethan times amidst the playhouses and acting companies of Shakespeare and his ilk… and oooh! Now I’m torn…