Wednesday, April 13, 2016

“The Empty Throne” Is One of Bernard Cornwell’s Best!

Earlier this year, I finished The Empty Throne by Bernard Cornwell, the eighth installment in his newly renamed Last Kingdom series about England’s struggles against the Vikings in the late eighth and early ninth centuries. Here’s my review after this image of the book’s cover.

When I saw the book’s title, I had assumed the “empty throne” would concern Wessex, the English kingdom around which most of the Last Kingdom series has centered. After the death of King Alfred the Great in Death of Kings, I had no idea how long his heir, Edward, would survive. But Edward isn’t the subject of this tale. No, the “empty throne” belongs to the former kingdom of Mercia, and this time around Cornwell delivers his own version of a “game of thrones.” 

At the end of The Pagan Lord, both Uhtred and his hated cousin Æthelred, the Lord of Merica, suffered terrible wounds at the battle of Teotanheale. Uhtred was stabbed in the side by Cnut Ranulfson, with his legendary sword Ice-Spite, and it’s unclear by the end of “The Pagan Lord” if Uhtred will survive. Of course, we learn in this novel that he lived, though he remains weak and wounded and spends much of the novel with one foot inside death’s door. That said, however, he ends up doing far better than Æthelred. 

It turns out that Æthelred is dying without a male heir, so the nobles have summoned a Witan to decide Mercia’s future. Æthelred leaves behind only his teenage daughter and his estranged wife, the Lady Æthelflaed, one of the heroines of the last several novels and Uhtred’s former lover. Uhtred wants Æthelflaed on the throne, but the thought of a woman ruling Merica does not sit well with many of the nobles, especially the Ealdorman Æthelhelm of Wessex. 

Æthelhelm is not only King Edward’s father-in-law and the second richest man in Wessex, but he also has designs on controlling Mercia’s throne. His pawn in the game is Eardulf, the slick and mischievous commander of Æthelred’s household guards, but Eardulf isn’t noble, and the only way he can claim the throne is to marry a woman of royal blood. Uhtred is prepared to ensure that never happens, and his attempts to prevent the marriage propels the novel into a thrilling adventure, with plenty of intrigue and battles of the kind that Cornwell so masterfully writes. 

My hope is that The Last Kingdom on BBC America lasts long enough to portray this tale!* 
This novel is a bit unique among the series because Uhtred is basically too injured to fight, forcing one of the great warriors in fiction to rely even more on his mind than his battle prowess. But it also forces him to rely more on others, which makes The Empty Throne a family affair, Uhtred style. In the last book, we got to know Uhtred’s son Uhtred, who has grown in a warrior like his father. And in this book we’re introduced to his resourceful daughter Stiorra, a spitting image of Uhtred’s late wife Gisela, who has inherited some of her mother’s gift for prophecy. Stiorra is quietly pagan, genially natured, and fierce when crossed, which quickly made her one of my favorite characters in the series.

In addition to its game of thrones intrigue, the novel offers plenty more, including a new and unexpected love interest for Uhtred, a new and dangerous Viking threat, and even a quest to find Ice-Spite after a priest tells Uhtred that if he finds the sword, the wounds it caused will finally be healed. Overall, The Empty Throne turned out to be one of my favorite books in Cornwell’s series. My only hope is that The Last Kingdom on BBC America lasts long enough to bring this book to life.

PS, you can read a preview of the Kindle version of the book here

* Image courtesy of BBC America.

1 comment:

Bill said...

This series gets better with each installment, I think. Cornwell has been writing historical fiction for a long time, and he's at the top of his game.

He's pretty much promised to revisit Sharpe and the ACW series The Starbuck Chroniciles, which he last added to 10 and 20 years ago respectively.