Lords of the North by Bernard Cornwell
Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Harper Paperbacks (January 2, 2008)
The year is 878, and Uhtred is returning home to Northumbria at the hands of the Three Spinners. Lords of the North is the third book in the Saxon Chronicles series (following The Last Kingdom and The Pale Horseman), and we continue to follow Uhtred’s journey in his quest to recover his familial inheritance of Bebbanburg. Uhtred is also seeking revenge for the murder of his adopted Danish father, Ragnar, at the hands of Kjartan the Cruel (The Last Kingdom, Book 1)
Uhtred has killed the mighty Ubba Lothbrokson (Book 1) and helped King Alfred the Great defeat the Danes at Ethandun (Book 2), and feeling slighted by his menial reward, Uhtred leaves Alfred’s service and goes north. He takes Hild the West Saxon nun with him, and when they arrive in the north and are passing through Kjartan’s lands, Uhtred frees one of Kjartan’s slaves, Guthred, who claims to come from a line of kings. Guthred is a Dane, but in order to rule, he becomes a Christian and works to bring both Danes and Christians together. Uhtred becomes Guthred’s closest advisor for a time, but in order to protect his kingdom, Guthred takes the advice of Uhtred on a certain matter, which ultimately forces Uhtred into slavery.
For years afterward, Uhtred serves as an oarsman to a Danish trader, rowing across the channel from England to Europe and back and even going as far as Iceland. Uhtred makes friends with another slave, an Irishman, and it is their vows of revenge that keep them alive, always waiting for the perfect opportunity to escape. Their chance of escape comes from an unlikely source, and with his new found freedom, Uhtred returns to Northumbria to exact revenge on Kjartan and on his uncle, who currently holds the castle at Bebbanburg.
Old friends from the first two books re-emerge to help Uhtred capture Kjartan’s main fortress at Dunholm. Ragnar Ragnarson and Brida return as does Beocca, King Alfred’s priest. The battles in this book are more violent than the last two as chaos reigns supreme in the lands of Northumbria and Bernicia.
Uhtred’s character is still the warrior, always the warrior, but his approach to handling situations is beginning to mature. While he would prefer just to kill and be done with it, he is beginning to realize that it is not always the most feasible course of action, and it seems he is starting to understand and respect Alfred a bit more. The two will never like each other, but Uhtred seems to accept on some level that Alfred is a good king, and he even advises Guthred based on what Alfred would have done. I think the maturity of Uhtred’s character is the most interesting aspect of Lords of the North. He now understands that it takes more than swords to win a war.
The book also has some nice plot twists, which are characteristic of Cornwell’s other novels, and these twists keep the story unpredictable. It’s nice to have some of the other characters return and play a more prominent role, namely Ragnar, and while Alfred’s character is not featured much, we at least are beginning to have a clearer understanding of why he was successful as a leader. The Last Kingdom and The Pale Horsemen portrayed him as a weakling that no one would want to follow, but Lords of the North shifts our view of him somewhat. Hopefully, Book 4 (Sword Song), which I’m reading now, will build on that.
My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
I’ll read almost anything by Cornwell (and I say almost only because I don’t have enough time to read for pleasure these days). This series, though, is among his best work. It’s almost as good as Sharpe!
Irv, I still need to read the Sharpe series. I’m trying to finish his medieval-related books first. After I finish the Saxon Chronicles, I was planning to read his Arthurian books. Per the Saxon Chronicles, I believe his new book Burning Land comes out soon. And I also need to read Agincourt now that I think about it.
Cornwell is definitely an interesting writer. He writes very good “guy books”(many “guy books” aren’t very well written, just as many romances aren’t very well written, either). And yet there are aspects of the Saxon series that annoy me. The chief one is the way he portrays King Alfred as basically a sanctimonious wimp who somehow manages to win battles anyway. Cornwell also has a real loathing for “organized religion” and his portrayal of the Church is much too hostile for my taste. He also has trouble writing women(as many authors of “guy books” do). His women characters are basically flat and interchangeable, which is too bad.
Now this may sound like I really dislike Cornwell. I don’t. I just think there are aspects to his writing, and his approach to this particular era of history, which are flawed, and may even be “ahistorical” in a sense. He really is an excellent writer, and he does give a very good “flavor” of the period he writes about. So I do intend to get the next book in that series.
I never thought of Cornwell as writing books primarily for guys. My wife tends to enjoy his work too, though not as much as I do.
I have also been annoyed at the prevalence in Cornwell’s books of corrupt and evil minded priests. The ones who are portrayed as good people are usually former soldiers. But Cornwell is certainly not the worst offender when it comes to making the church look bad. It’s a common trope in current literature.
I disagree a little about his portrayal of Alfred. He is clearly not likable but he has more dimensions than you’ve described. For example, he’s a genius who seems to practice something like scientific method long before the method was codified.
He’s also an excellent leader even while not being the kind of guy a warrior can warm up to. I find him to be an interesting character though, like you, I get tired of his sanctimony. I have no idea how historically accurate that may or may not be.
I do agree a lot of Cornwell’s women characters are somewhat flat. There has never been one of his women characters that I have really become attached to in the books Iv’e read. They’re just not that memorable.
In regards to the depiction of Alfred, I’ve thought about it a good deal and I used to think the portrayal could not possibly be correct because why would so many people follow a weak leader. Then someone made a comment to me that made sense. We as readers have to remember the character of Alfred is being seen through the eyes of a pagan “Dane” (or at least someone who sees himself as a Dane) who is a warrior and thinks every problem can be solved by the sword, and since Alfred is not a traditional warrior, Uhtred thinks he is weak. As mentioned in my review above, I believe Uhtred starts to understand — to a degree — why Alfred is successful as a leader, even if it means using his mind and diplomacy rather than the sword.
With the religious aspects, it does seem Cornwell has a distaste for organized religion. His depiction in other novels of the Catholic Church and the priesthood is similar, but it could have been an historical corruption as a whole of the Church during the medieval period, as the themes of corruption and greed and politicking do commonly appear in other historical chronicles and historical novels, not just with Cornwell. As Irv mentioned, some of Cornwell’s religious characters are well thought of, for example, Beocca in the Saxon Chronicles. The main character in the Grail Quest Series, Thomas of Hookton, also has positive religious characteristics about him. He’s a soldier and not part of the priesthood though.
For the most part, it seems to me that Cornwell tries to keep his personal beliefs, whatever they are, out of his novels and just tell the stories as they are. He has characters that represent a wide range of views, which I like. Some are religious, others are not. Some are corrupt, others are loyal and honest. Some are warriors, others are peacemakers.
And lastly, I do think his books are probably more appealing to men, and I’m sure men are the majority of his readers. My wife did read The Last Kingdom, and she really enjoyed it, and she was able to feel connected to one of the women characters. Cornwell’s women characters never stay around very long. They may be in one novel or a part of a novel, but then they rarely show back up again, or if they do show back up, it’s for a very small moment.
Irv and Steve:
I call the kind of books Cornwell writes “guy books” because of their emphasis on “adventure and action”, not relationships. Writers of such books are always men; women tend to like more “romantic” elements, and generally their women characters aren’t completely interchangable. To be fair to Cornwell, he writes very good “guy books”, and I have been happily reading his “Saxon” series. His latest seems to be getting mixed reviews, but that’s another story.
Re Cornwell’s “distaste for organized religion”, there is apparently a reason for this: he was raised by a family which belonged to religious group called the Peculiar People(they have since renamed themselves), who were/are apparently very strict “religionists”. According to the Wikipedia entry on Cornwell that I read, he was very unhappy with them, and, as an adult, turned fiercely against any religious organizations whatsoever. That would be fine, except that he tends to portray all religious people as somehow corrupt and twisted. Unfortunately, this includes King Alfred, who comes off(to me, at least), as a sanctimoniously pious character almost too “wimpy” to lead campaigns. Except that he did. And kept the Viking armies at bay — no mean accomplishment at the time. No doubt he was happier imitating Charlemagne,, and encouraging people to read and get educated, but again that’s probably another story.
For these reasons and others, I think Cornwell’s “personal beliefs” are in his novels, at least to the extent that his writing reflects at least some of his own experiences. Most writers don’t make it that obvious, which is why I was wondering, at least until I found out things about his upbringing, why he was so hostile to “organized religion”. BTW, at the time, I considered, and continue to consider the trope of “happy pagans v. nasty Crhistians” a very overused one. But again, that’s another story.
I think I remember reading something about his religious upbringing before. I suppose I could see how that would influence his writing.
His “religious upbringing” certainly seems to have influenced his “Saxon” series! I can’t remember about his other books. It wasn’t such an important issue there, I guess.
I can see this religious influence more in the Saxon series than in the other books I’ve read. My father read the Nathaniel Starbuck series, and he said the books were fairly positive toward religion.