Friday, February 6, 2009

The Saxon Series by Bernard Cornwell

It had been over three years since I last read a novel, but for some reason over Christmas I felt compelled to find some good fiction. I looked around and was pleasantly surprised to see that Bernard Cornwell had published a series on Dark Age Britain. The last novel I had read was one of his Sharpe books, which I enjoyed quite a bit.

I finished the 4th book in the Saxon Tales series last month. My assessment—excellent! Cornwell's 9th century Britain is immersive and very well researched. In the course of the story we learn of Britain's varying landscapes, the Saxon's laws, the importance of oaths, the raiding of old Roman buildings for building stone, the politics of the British isles, and the Danish custom of wearing silver and gold arm rings.

Of course, a historic novel should also have a good story. In this respect the tale does not disappoint. The characters are compelling and the battles are exciting. The Saxon Tales series follows Uhtred's development as a warrior starting at childhood. Reading of his youthful arrogance is annoying at times, but it's a realistic depiction of adolescence.

Religion plays a large part in the tale. The institution of Saxon Christianity is constantly contrasted with the pagan beliefs of the Danes. This theme is very appropriate to the setting, yet it may come as somewhat of a surprise to see religion featured so prominently in a novel intended for a mainstream audience. The Simpsons and Philosophy, edited by William Irwin et al. includes an interesting essay on this very subject. The author was impressed by the fact that The Simpsons TV series includes religion at all. The vast majority of TV shows, movies, etc. won't the touch the subject for fear of offending somebody. The pagan Uhtred is critical of the Christians—priests mostly—but this does not come off as religion-bashing.

The author could have made a better effort to distance his main character from his better known, Richard Sharpe. Both characters are orphaned uncouth warriors. They are without influence until the head honcho (Wellington or Alfred) grants them favor after the hero saves the Duke/King from harm in battle. Cornwell uses a first person narrative. The book's events are told by an old Uhtred speaking about his past exploits. This format can be problematic at times only because the uneducated main character speaks with the author's eloquence. For instance, I doubt the real-life warrior would use such a word as "obsequiousness." I've never even seen that word before! I personally am not really bothered by the above criticisms, but I thought they should be noted.

OK, in short this is a great series. If you to your library right now you'll be able to read these four books before the 5th comes out later this year!

The Saxon Tales by Bernard Cornwell:
The Last Kingdom Book 1

The Pale Horseman Book 2

Lords of the North Book 3

Sword Song Book 4


stevent said...

Cornwell is definitely my favorite historical fiction author at the moment. I'm working my way through the Saxon Chronicles as well. I'm just starting Lords of the North. As you said, he writes excellent battle scenes. That was one of the things that first captivated me about his writing. He does it better than anyone I've read.

I was first introduced to Cornwell through the Grail Quest Series. That series follows the life of an English longbowman during the Hundred Years War. I'd recommend reading that one as well.

Have you by chance read his Arthurian Series, I believe it starts with The Winter King. I've heard many say that is his best series out of everything he's written.

Andrew said...

I forgot about Grail Quest series. I should read those!

I knew about the Arthur series, but I just don't care for the literary King Arthur. I read Le Morte d'Arthur and some other Arthur stories in high school and wasn't impressed. I am interested in historic 5th century Britain, but it seems like Cornwell's story is all about Sr. Lancelot, Merlin, Guinevere, etc. I don't know, I'd probably still like the series if I gave it a chance.

stevent said...

Definitely read the Grail Quest series. I really enjoyed the first two books. He does a great job with the Battle of Crecy at the end of The Archers Tale (first in the series).

I'm reading a book about King Arthur called The Kingmaking by Helen Hollick. It's actually a pre-published release (release date is March 2009, next month), but I'm reviewing it for website, so I have an advanced copy.

I like her take on Arthur thus far. Very different from the traditional Arthur tales with Merlin and the Round Table and such. It attempts to present a realistic view to the actual person in history.

A couple of other Arthur books I hear are pretty good are: Sky Stone by Jack Whyte and Mary Stewart's series, the name escapes me at the moment.

But back to Cornwell. Have you read his new book? Azincourt (UK) or Agincourt (US), depending on the UK or US version?

Eli Arndt said...

I am realtively new to Cornwell and was completely unaware that he wrote about the Saxons. This is exciting news.