Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Pale Horseman

Following the release of Death of Kings, I started re-reading some of the earlier novels in Bernard Cornwell’s fantastic series, The Saxon Tales. (You can read my review of The Last Kingdom, the first novel, here.) The books are set in England during the reign of Alfred the Great, who defended the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms against the Danish Vikings in the ninth century. Alfred is an important figure in the novels, but the focus is on Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a dispossessed Northumbrian lord who, in my view, is one of the all-time great characters in Medieval fiction. The Pale Horseman is the second book in the series, and my review of the novel follows this image of its cover.

While all but the kingdom of Wessex have fallen to the Vikings, The Pale Horseman begins with the Saxons having defeated a Danish army at Cynuit, thanks to the prowess of Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a young and brash warrior who was born a Saxon but raised by Danes. But when a rival lord claims credit for the victory at Cynuit before King Alfred of Wessex, Uhtred becomes enraged and breaks the king’s law. As punishment, Alfred forces Uhtred to perform a humiliating penance, which only fuels his hatred for the king he’s sworn to serve. 

The events that follow reveal the “gray” nature of Uhtred’s character. At times, he becomes somewhat of an antihero, such as when he and his men “go viking” and ravage a Breton village. Uhtred is rash and violent, yet I found myself rooting for him all the same, especially after his actions exacerbate his troubles with Alfred, and more false accusations by Uhtred’s rival lead to even greater injustice. Uhtred’s conflict with the overly pious and strict Alfred is central to the novel, but their relationship takes an intriguing turn after the Danes attack Alfred’s stronghold at Cippenhamm, forcing both Alfred and Uhtred to take refuge in the nearby marshland. There, surrounded by the Viking army, Uhtred must decide whether to defend the king he despises, while the fate of Wessex hangs in the balance.

As with all of Cornwell’s novel’s, The Pale Horseman introduces us to a new set of memorable characters, including the hulking Saxon warrior Steapa (who serves Uhtred’s rival) and Asser (whom Uhtred calls “the Ass”), a conniving Welsh monk based on the real life cleric who would become Bishop of Sherborne. One of the novel’s most intriguing supporting characters is Uhtred’s love interest, Iseult. She’s a Briton and a pagan, a "shadow queen" who claims she can see the future. Her powers profoundly impact both Uhtred’s and Alfred’s lives, while increasing the tension between the Christians and the pagans, yet another element that makes these novel’s so interesting.

The Pale Horseman is one of my favorite novels in The Saxon Tales series, and among the best of Bernard Cornwell’s Medieval fiction. I highly recommend it!


Carmen Ferreiro-Esteban said...

I'm glad to see I'm not the only one who loved this series.

You can read my review of The Last Kingdom here

Joseph Finley said...

Thanks for the comment and the reference to your site! It was a great review of The Last Kingdom. I also liked that you included the link. There is so much good content out there. The hard part is finding it.