The year is 877 AD, and the Saxons have just defeated the Danes at Cynuit, though troubles for Alfred and his kingdom of Wessex are far from over. The Danes control three of the four major kingdoms in England — Northumbria, Mercia, and East Anglia — and they are continuing to push farther into Wessex, intent on conquering the last kingdom.
The Pale Horseman, Cornwell’s second novel in the Saxon Chronicles, continues to the story of Uhtred of Bebbanburg. Still torn among his loyalties to Alfred, his Danish upbringing, and the home from which has been dispossessed in Northumbria, Uhtred sets out to make a name for himself as a warrior. His youthful arrogance creates for him many enemies, and while I liked his character in the first novel, his arrogance breeds brutality, selfishness, and a general lack of concern for others (especially his wife and child) and that makes him less appealing in this story. By the end, however, I started to gain respect for Uhtred again.
Cornwell does a good job with the protagonist, creating good and bad qualities that constantly shift your opinion of the main character, and even though Uhtred is well-rounded, I found the many of the supporting characters in this novel somewhat uninteresting. The cast of characters (Ragnar, Brida, Leofric, Kjartan and Sven) that made the first novel (The Last Kingdom) so engaging are basically non-existent in this novel, and we are introduced to a host of new faces, who in truth, do not add much to the storyline. King Alfred plays a major role, but his personality is boring — though his boring personality may be an accurate portrayal of his real personality in life — and I wonder from this how Alfred was able to inspire his countrymen to fight and save Wessex from complete annihilation. Iseult, a Briton shadow-queen, is Uhtred’s love interest in this novel, but there is little depth given to their relationship.
Despite the lower quality of the characters and slower pacing, Cornwell still does a great job with the medieval historical details as always — his battle scenes are unmatched — and by the end, the novel really starts to pick up speed and ends on a high note. I’m looking forward to reading the next installment, Lords of the North, in the Saxon Chronicles series. I just hope Cornwell brings back some of the older characters and storylines and that he will add more depth to King Alfred’s character. Alfred is king for a reason, but from what I’ve read, I don’t feel inspired to follow him, and I’m not sure why any of his subjects would feel inspired to follow him either. But maybe that’s just the way he was; I haven’t studied him much beyond basic reading and superficial facts.
Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars