The story begins when the series’ protagonist Uhtred of Bebbanburg, an unabashed pagan, kills an abbot while attempting to reclaim his eldest son and namesake who chose to become a priest. His son’s choice is so repugnant to Uhtred that he takes back the boy’s name after throwing him in a dung pile, referring to him forevermore as “Father Judas.” This act of violence against the Church—just the latest of many by Uhtred over the years—infuriates the Christians and their bishops, and Uhtred is once again forced into exile. But this time, he decides to leave Wessex and Mercia for good and reclaim his ancestral home of Bebbanburg.
Much of the novel concerns Uhtred’s quest to reclaim Bebbanburg, which has been ruled by Uhtred’s traitorous uncle Ælfric since the first novel. Yet before that quest begins, Cornwell introduces the novel’s central mystery: the wife and children of Jarl Cnut Ranulfson (“a legend in the lands where the Danes ruled”) have been kidnapped by men pretending to serve Uhtred, but the real culprit remains hidden. After Uhtred convinces Cnut of his innocence, Cnut asks him to find out who took his wife and children. Uhtred agrees to do so, if he can, but also discovers that his old enemy Haesten is in Cnut’s service. According to Uhtred, Haesten is like Loki the trickster god, so the plot thickens shall we say.
Fans of the series have been waiting for Uhtred to reclaim Bebbanburg for years, and his quest produces some of the novel’s most memorable scenes. Uhtred leads a small company of men, including his Irish sidekick Finan, to capture the impervious castle through subterfuge. He is joined by Osferth, the bastard son of the late King Alfred, and Uhtred’s second son, who he calls Uhtred Uhtredson. And just how many characters are there named “Uhtred” in this novel? By my count, no less than five, and it can get a bit confusing at times.
One of the aspects I’ve enjoyed the most about Uhtred’s tales is that, in a way, these novels are like medieval James Bond stories. Each one delivers some new and powerful villain, as well an intriguing female character who inevitably serves as Uhtred’s love interest for a time. This time, we’re introduced to Ingulfried, the cunning and beautiful wife of Ælfric’s son (and Uhtred’s cousin)—who’s also named Uhtred and has his own designs on Bebbanburg. But King Alfred’s daughter, the strong and likeable Æthelfled, features prominently in the novel too, as does another of Uhtred’s past flames, and at times I wondered just which one he might end up with.
Like all of Uhtred’s tales, the battles are some of the best parts, and no one writes them better than Bernard Cornwell. Before it’s over, the novel provides one of the more epic battles in the series, and that’s saying a lot for a series that’s featured a number of them. The novel’s end threw me for a huge loop and featured the series’ first cliffhanger ending. I’ll be looking forward to the next book—I just hope we don’t have to wait too long to learn how it all ends.