Bernard Cornwell – The Pale Horseman (Saxon Chronicles Book 2)

Bernard Cornwell, The Pale Horseman, Saxon Chronicles, historical fiction, King Alfred the Great, Wessex, Danes, medieval, EnglandThe 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

6 thoughts on “Bernard Cornwell – The Pale Horseman (Saxon Chronicles Book 2)”

  1. I don’t think it was the way Alfred was, or people wouldn’t have followed him and history wouldn’t have worked out the way it did. My biggest disappointment with the series is the portrayal of Alfred. There could have been a most interesting interplay between Alfred as the cool competent strategist and Uhtred as the warrior, which works very well with Wellington and Sharpe in the ‘Sharpe’ series. But because Alfred is shown as so feeble that’s lost, and I think it’s a shame.

  2. I absolutely agree. Have you read all four books? I still need to read the Lords of the North and Sword Song. I have hopes that Alfred’s character will become stronger throughout the series. Right now, I’m not seeing it, and like you, find that disappointing.

  3. I’m afraid I got bored with both the latest two and put them aside for other things. I’d say he’s written better. But I may just have been in the wrong mood, and I didn’t read very far into either, so I will definitely try them again before making a final judgment. I have hopes of Alfred’s daughter Aethelflaed for later in the series – Cornwell has commented on his website that he sees her as the series heroine, and the historical Aethelflaed was certainly a heroine. I shall keep trying the later books as they appear, partly to see if Uhtred grows up and partly to look out for Aethelflaed’s story starting to pick up. Pale Horseman had Aethelred of Mercia as a decidedly unpleasant character, so I have a feeling I can guess what line the story is going to take (but I hope I am wrong, so I shall keep my mouth shut until it’s proven!). I think if Cornwell was going to let Alfred show strength of character he’d have done it in Pale Horseman. Athelney and Edington displayed the historical Alfred’s heroic and leadership qualities to great effect. In later life, when he had a halfway stable kingdom to run, he concerned himself more with good government – which I think was at least as important, if not more so, but it was less obviously heroic and so will make less obvious material for an action yarn.

  4. I admit I don’t know much about the actual person of Alfred. Was he a warrior, did he fight alongside his men, or was he simply a commander?

    I also would like to see him develop more of a heroine role in the series. I thought Brida was going to be that in the first novel, and then she faded out, and then I thought Iseult would fill that role in the second novel, but we know what happened to her. Of course, in the Grail Quest Series, he really didn’t have a consistent, steady heroine either. I thought that made good sense, though, since Thomas was an archer and wandering all over England and France. I think a heroine would actually work better in the Saxon Chronicles.

  5. Cornwell’s women tend to be rather interchangeable, so if he does make Aethelflaed into a heroine it would be something of a new departure. Guinevere and Nimue in the Arthur trilogy are probably his most powerful female characters. I suspect that if Brida reappears in the Uhtred series it will be in a role reminiscent of Nimue. Aethelflaed might take a role similar to the one he gives Guinevere – the historical Aethelflaed was certainly a strategist, and a very capable one at that. It will be interesting to see!

    If you’re interested in the historical Alfred and particularly in the military aspects of his career, you might like to read Alfred: Warrior King by John Peddie. The author is ex-military and the book is a detailed and very readable account of the logistics, tactics and strategy of Alfred’s war against the Danes, based on what the sources tell us and on logical inference. It’s a compact book that packs a lot of information into a small space.

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