Another great installment about loyalty, power, faith, friendship, and ambition.
Putting into consideration that the first season of The Last Kingdom TV shows are adaptations of the first two books in the series, and now that I’ve read both The Last Kingdom and The Pale Horseman, I can definitely say that I prefer the first two books over the first season. To be fair, despite being a huge fan of the TV series, it was the second season and beyond that made me a fan. Yes, I know that they’re different mediums of storytelling, but a comparison in overall quality of entertainment can still be made.
“Words are like breath," she said, "you say them and they're gone. But writing traps them. You could write down stories, poems.”
The Pale Horseman takes place immediately after what happened at the end of The Last Kingdom. I’m incredibly impressed by how absorbed I am by Cornwell’s writing. I mean, this is only the second book in the series, and I’ve watched TV series adaptation; I know what’s going to happen to these characters. But Cornwell’s writing was so compelling and immersive that it felt like I was in the heat of the danger together with Uthred, Alfred, and all the characters. I felt the sense of danger, which in my opinion never felt immediate and threatening in season 1 of the TV series. I loved reading Uthred’s narration; he’s no longer a kid, but he’s still young and full of anger. The dynamic in the relationship between Uthred and Alfred definitely is one of the key highlights of this book. It’s always interesting to see Uthred’s struggle and conflict; he hates Alfred, and he also wants to be accepted by him.
“There comes a moment in life when we see ourselves as others see us. I suppose that is part of growing up, and it is not always comfortable.”
The King of the Marsh sequence of events in the book felt so memorable, too. At the end of the book, the historical note by Cornwell tells just how grim and dire the situation actually was. The Pale Horseman also introduced more important side characters for the series like Hild and Steapa. I must say, the Christians and how blindly faithful they were—everything that differs from their belief is immediately justified as an act of devilry blah blah blah—can be incredibly maddening. I think this is a good sign of the narrative, though; we’re hearing Uthred’s narration, and I can only imagine just how frustrating it must be in his shoes. I did have a bit of a minor issue, there were times when the description did get a bit dense that it slowed down the pacing. This is a bit common in Cornwell’s writing, and it doesn’t help that the paragraph in his books can run for one or two pages long. Fortunately, Cornwell’s battle scenes remained great as always. Dialogues were also tense, engaging, and sometimes hilarious. The Pale Horseman reminded me once again that Uthred has suffered so much even though it’s still very early in the series.
“And that, too, was the truth, that a man cannot step back from a fight and stay a man. We make much in this life if we are able. We make children and wealth and amass land and build halls and assemble armies and give great feasts, but only one thing survives us. Reputation. I could not walk away.”
Overall, I highly enjoyed reading The Pale Horseman. Cornwell is just so good at writing historical fiction, and this is a wonderful addition to The Last Kingdom series. I’m looking forward to reading the next book in two weeks. I’m sure the best for the series are still to come, and I seriously can’t wait to meet my dudes: Finan and Sithric.
Official release date: 3rd October 2005
You can order the book from: Book Depository (Free shipping)
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Uhtred of Bebbanburg, Lord of Northumbria is as headstrong, arrogant, and fearless as ever. Now married with a child at the age of 21, he rode into battle to Cynuit and slaughtered the Danish leader, Ubba Lothbrokson. Fully expecting recognition for the deed upon his return to King Alfred, Uhtred meets the inexorable fate he always believed in. The pompous, self-important, Odda the Younger took the credit for the slaying, and no one, not even King Alfred would ever challenge Odda since Alfred was in dire need of the troops and wealth belonging to Odda’s elderly father. Although deemed to be a Saxon, Uhtred’s very essence still belonged to the Danes having lived with them as a young boy. However, Uhtred realizes the day will come when he must make a choice to carry on fighting the Danes, or join them. Author Bernard Cornwell has written an epic tale of life in England in the year 877 and the great battle with the strong-willed Danes determined to take over their country. Many extraordinary, well developed characters grace the pages of this book and readers will be held spellbound to the conclusion. Highly recommended!
His glory has been stolen by the coward Odda the Younger. He has claimed the victory at Cynuit as his own, and the slaying of the mighty warlord Ubba as his work. When Uhtred returns to his king, he is met with distain and mistrust. The coward has turned Alfred against him and Uhtred’s anger threatens the fragile piece that has been made.
So why not blow of some steam with a little Viking raiding?
“There is so much joy in a good ship, and a greater joy to have the ship’s belly fat with other men’s silver. It is the Viking joy, driving a dragon headed hull through a wind driven sea towards a future full of feats and laughter. The Danes taught me that and I love them for it, pagan swine though they may be.”
Uhtred builds up a small force of men, and steals one of the king’s ships, and takes himself off on a little nostalgic raiding trip. He gets to indulge in his Danish side without changing his loyalties and threatening Alfred’s promises of peace to the Danes. He meets Svein, a fellow warrior and a leader of men. The two are fast friends and together, make a brief companionship.
It’s not too last though. Uhtred has debts to the church and must return to his wife and young child. Rumours of his deeds have leaked to his king and his must face his distaste for a second time. Though what can Alfred truly expect? Uhtred is as much Danish as he is Saxon. He is a divided man. One who realises that only through Alfred can he regain his former Earldom. However, he is Danish at heart as they he was raised by them. But, Uhtred is now sworn to Wessex and its King. So when his former, yet brief, friend arrives with a small fleet of ships to hunt down Alfred, Uhtred’s loyalties are tested yet again.
“Svien looked magnificent, a silver white warrior. He rode a white horse, wore a white woollen cloak, and his mail and boar snouted helmet had been scrubbed with sand until they glowed silver in the watery sunlight.”
Alfred’s kingdom now hangs by the edge of Uhtred’s sword and its fate will be determined in another shield wall. Bernard Cornwell does another amazing job at evoking inner character conflict and divided loyalties. His characterisation of Uhtred is marvellous. We know where he will eventually end up but, somehow, the prospect of reading how he gets there is more exciting than the situation in the first place.
The Saxon Stories
1. The Last Kingdom- A fine five stars
2. The Pale Horsman- -A brilliant five stars
3.Lords of the North-A vengeful four stars
4.Sword Song- A familiar four stars
5.The Burning Land- A loyal five stars
6. Death of Kings A mighty five stars
I read The Last Kingdom in 2015, while a book it didn't like enough to continue the series. Fast forward 2017, I started watching Vikings and I liked it very much, that in turn made me come back to this series. While the History's Viking has a different plot than this but the theme of Danes' invasion of England is where both match. I am very happy that I came back and read this book because I loved it.
This book started with Uhtred's return to England. High on his win over Danish leader Ubba Lothbrokson, Uhtred was expecting high praise and reward from Alfred, King of Wessex but nothing of that sort happened. Instead he gets to know that Odda the Younger has taken the credit of Lothbrokson’s death. Uhtred was furious and angry, and thus he decided to wait for the day when Danes would defeat England and he would gladly join them and take revenge for the insult that he got from Saxons.
But what Uhtred wanted never became reality instead he reached at a point where he had to pick a side and he ended up being a Saxon and winning the war for Alfred.
This book was full of battles, and tells us how faithful Alfred was to Church. Even on the brink of defeat and death he didn’t forget his religion and did what he thought wise in terms of Church’s teachings.
But it is Uhtred who made this book memorable for me. Poor lad tried so hard to go back to Danes but every time situation brought him back to England. Also his transformation from an arrogant and proud young man to skilled warrior, and a leader was amazing. His relationship with Alfred grew gradually, where they both hated each other first but slowly became friends and started trusting it each other. It was a treat to read.
I am definitely ready to see what is next for Uhtred.
"When I was twenty I considered myself a full-grown man. I had fathered a child, fought in the shield wall, and was loath to take advice from anyone."
Following The Last Kingdom's climactic battle with the Danes at Cynuit, Uhtred wishes to return to his family and his estate instead of returning to King Alfred with Ubba's war axe and banner to claim the victory and the spoils that come with it. In Uhtred's absence, the slimy lord Odda the Younger claims to have led the Saxons to their victory and to have bested Ubba himself. When Uhtred returns to Winchester he is shocked to see that there has been no mention of his extremely influential input to the events of the battle. Uhtred's longtime friend Father Beocca was not even aware that Uhtred had escaped from being a hostage of Guthrum. Odda's weaving of events to paint himself in a perfect light, the fact he glosses over Uhtred's importance completely, and that none of Odda's followers are willing to contradict him even though they know the truth of the matter, really pisses Uhtred off. Uhtred expresses his dissatisfaction as only a man as headstrong as the lord of Bebbanburg can and unsheaths his sword in the King's chamber in the presence of all the men of influence in Wessex. Uhtred should have received a hero's welcome but what he gets is anything but, planting a seed of loathing and an atmosphere of discord.
"We make much in this life if we are able. We make children and wealth and amass land and build halls and assemble armies and give great feasts, but only one thing survives us. Reputation. I could not walk away."
Uhtred's dream is to take back his rightful home of Bebbanburg where his uncle unlawfully sits as Ealderman. He realises that by following Alfred and giving his blood, sweat, and tears to the monarch isn't going to make him the silver to raise an army to complete his objective. So, alongside the gruff warrior Leofric, Uhtred and some followers decide to take one of the King's ships, to dress it up as a Viking raider, and to do some raiding themselves under the disguise of being Danes.
During The Pale Horseman, there are expertly crafted battles, skirmishes and duels that are gripping to read about. We are introduced to fine new characters such as the lord of war Svein, the Shadow Queen Iseult, and the loyal but dim warrior Steopa. My personal favourites from the first novel such as Leofric and Young Ragnar shine here too although in some cases have limited page time. Characters relations change and develop finely through Uhtred's unique, honest, and extremely personal first-person perspective. I trust and understand Uhtred's opinions and plans however reckless they seem or provoking they are to the church of the crown.
The Pale Horseman was more of the same of what I adored in The Last Kingdom, however, if all of the novels in this series are so similar then I can see myself getting a bit bored about halfway through the series. I hope that doesn't happen and that Cornwell continues to present exciting, action-packed historical fiction during the next stages of Uhtred's life whilst keeping it fresh and interesting enough to keep me intrigued. A huge positive for these novels, so far, is that at around 300-400 pages, I am able to race through them in a couple of days. I have Lords of the North already loaded on my Kindle and am ready to start reading that today to rejoin Uhtred in the front row of the shield wall. Fate is inexorable.
"The fear came then. The shield wall is a terrible place. It is where a warrior makes his reputation, and reputation is dear to us. Reputation is honour, but to gain that honour a man must stand in the shield wall where death runs rampant. I had been in the shield wall at Cynuit and I knew the smell of death, the stink of it, the uncertainty of survival, the horror of the axes and swords and spears, and I feared it. And it was coming."
After finishing The Last Kingdom, I immediately dived into this second instalment. I could not wait to follow Uhtred’s arc, who in the first book was already established as a unique, conflicted, awesome central protagonist.
Wessex, the last kingdom of England standing against the Danish threat, is once again on the brink of annihilation, in terms of both the faction it protects, and also the ideas is harbours. It is unto this that Uhtred must choose a side. Born a Saxon, raised a Dane, throughout the course of this book, he is trying to ascertain where his loyalties lie, and whatever he chooses, there is no certainty that he will feel he has made the correct decision. He lives in perpetual conflict as this decision looms over him, and with his retrospective narration in this tale, Bernard Cornwell introduces an unreliable flavour that makes this story even more engaging.
“Fate is inexorable”
Whilst The Last Kingdom was by all means a great introduction to this series, I would say that The Pale Horseman took a whole step up, in every respect. Bernard Cornwell built on an already solid cast of characters, crafting an emotional attachment that was not as present in book one. I have to mention here that I loved the addition of Father Pyrlig. He is hilarious and just adds something so fresh to this story. Also in this, There were of course fantastic action sequences, further advancement to plot, and an increase to the scale and significance of the events controlling Uhtred’s life.
Uhtred begins at around twenty years of age, immediately succeeding the conclusion to book one of the series. The story takes place over the expanse of around a year, maybe slightly longer, and in this time Uhtred is faced with many trials and tribulations which spur on character growth and highlight other aspects and characteristics he owns. Already, Uhtred is becoming one of the most interesting, authentic central protagonists in the many books that I have read.
“Words are like breath," she said, "you say them and they're gone. But writing traps them.”
One of the distinctive aspects of Bernard Cornwell’s writing and the Saxon Stories in particular is how the public and private, political and military matter blend and interweave, often tugging Uhtred in different directions that causes him to make concessions for ‘the greater good’, or what he perceives to be ‘the best option’. This adds a psychological complexity as Uhtred is confronted with his failures, and heralded for his successes, and how he reacts to these situations.
The structure remains much the same as book one, with larger than average chapters, but ones that are split within themselves and I believe manage to maintain the fast pace that is often created from smaller chapters. Alongside this, there are three phases in The Pale Horseman which the story is fashioned into, often with a small period of time passing during the transition, allowing for this tight story with a page-turning pace, whilst still relating to the recorded dates of battles such as the climax of the story, which takes place at Ethandun.
The Pale Horseman was a fantastic sequel in this second instalment in the Saxon Stories, which in partnership with its predecessor forms the entirety of The Last Kingdom Season 1, which combines the two books. Bernard Cornwell again delivers great characters, an engaging plot and an awesome concept that adopts such an interesting period of history. Of course, I cannot wait to continue with this series. Destiny is All!
A fragile peace still holds in the realms of Britain. After the forces of Wessex prevailed at Cynuit, the Danes have pulled back. King Alfred thinks himself safe, but in truth the last kingdom of the Saxons is in grave peril...
Writing a sequel to an amazing novel can sometimes be amazingly hard. Bernard Cornwell fulfilled that task with style, and in the process created my personal favourite Uhtred novel and proved himself a master of historical fiction. The Last Kingdom was an amazing book, but this is where this became one of my favourite series and Cornwell one of my favourite authors.
Uhtred must fight the hardest duel of his life against a truly formidable opponent, a strong Danish invasion catches the people of Wessex completely by surprise, and Alfred must hide in a swamp to avoid falling with his kingdom. All appears to be lost, including the fight to retake England from the Danes. But the unlikely allies Uhtred and Alfred refuse to give up, and they will do whatever must be done to take their land back from the invaders.
And I saw that Cippanhamm was burning. Smoke was darkening the winter sky and the horison was filled with men, mounted men, men with swords and axes and shields and spears and banners, and more horsemen were coming from the eastern gate to thunder across the bridge.
Because all Alfred’s prayers had gone wrong and the Danes had come to Wessex.
If I could write like this man, well, I'd be one very happy chick. And I do not want to write like this to make money, or make fans, or make myself famous, I just want to have this skill for myself, to know that I can do it, to know that I can create magic on paper, although, Bernard Cornwell, in this series at least, is more than merely skilled, he is an absolute master.
Would it be presumptuous of me to say that I think that he is a writer's writer? or more precisely, a fantasy writer's writer?
I can understand that some people may not appreciate this character and these Saxon books, but I just GET IT. I just totally get it.
To me there is no flaw in Cornwell's writing or storytelling in this series. His dialogue is pitch perfect, his story flow and description is natural and not in the slightest bit contrived. And as I said, I just totally get it.
Cornwell is a little heavy on the anti-Christian vibe and this may turn people off a bit, but I get that too, because they were heavy on God back then.
Do you really think they would burn pagans and heretics alive etc etc.. if the Church wasn't rife with screwy, religious zealots? Christianity dominated society and thought. Built civilisations and brought them down. People feared the Church and the Churchmen. They did not gain this reputation throughout history by being patient and loving of all men and women.
To me, early Christianity in England wasn't about love and tolerance and goodness and peace and forgiveness, it was about greed and power and survival. About jostling for King's favour and for wealth and fame.
The description of Christianity in this book might be off putting for some, but I think it is an accurate portrayal of those times. But, please forgive me fellow reviewers, perhaps I am just a cynic.
I am a woman, and I can see how these books may be too brutal and bloody for my fellow sex, or those of either sex who are oblivious to the subtle bluntness of Cornwell's storytelling and Cornwell's arrogant, uncomplicated male characters. I imagine quite a lot does go over people's heads. I also imagine that when some women read about "guts spooling about his feet" they cringe and run away. But, while I am all feminine woman, I also have a very definite female side and very definite masculine side, and this character and Cornwell's style very much appeals to the latter, my masculine side.
My masculine side wants to don a helmet and mail and fight beside Uhtred in the shield wall, while my female side wants to (editing out x-rated thoughts here...ahem....)and also hold his horse and his hoard while he draws Wasp-Sting and locks his shield in the fighting line.
Of course, being his female companion or his male companion could get me a sword to the head or a spear to the gut, but hey, wouldn't I get to go to Valhalla and party in the feast hall? As a man, yep, as a woman?? Nah, but I'd die with a smile on my face.
Uhtred makes me laugh. I like him and I get him. Maybe that is all I should have written in this review, it may have been, in it's simplicity, ample comment as I move onto the review of the next book in the series...Lords of the North.