Review of Sword Song by Bernard Cornwell

Sword Song - Bernard Cornwell - Saxon Stories - Historical Fiction - Vikings - Medieval History - Middle Ages History - Medieval England - Danes - Alfred the GreatSword Song: The Battle for London (Saxon Stories Book #4) by Bernard Cornwell
Paperback: 368 pages
Publisher: Harper Paperbacks; Reprint edition (December 23, 2008)
ISBN-10: 0061379743

Sword Song is the fourth book in Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon series. This series is becoming one of my favorites of all time. The third book, Lords of the North, was exceptionally good, but I think Sword Song is even better, though the first book (The Last Kingdom) is still my favorite over all.

In Sword Song, we pick up again with Uhtred, Lord of Bebbanburg, as he still in the service of King Alfred the Great. Uhtred’s desire, as always, is to return to Northumbria and reclaim his father’s lands from his uncle, but he is also a man of his word, and he has sworn an oath to Alfred, and so he continues to serve the king in his fight against the Danes in Wessex. The fact that Uhtred refuses to break an oath to a man he hates demonstrates a lot about his character. He may be ruthless, a man of war, a commander of soldiers, but he is honest and trustworthy, which earns him the respect of his own men and of Alfred. Uhtred is no longer the arrogant, brash, young warrior we saw in The Pale Horseman. He demonstrates true leadership ability by knowing when to fight and when to use diplomacy, and he proves his worth to Alfred in other ways aside from his skill with a sword and shield. Alfred entrusts Uhtred to construct and fortify a city, and Uhtred excels at this task.

As with the other three books, Uhtred’s relationship with Alfred is one of necessity and often distant. That is one area I would like Cornwell to spend more time developing in his novels. Alfred is the only English monarch ever to be given the title “Great,” but we as readers don’t really see Alfred as being a great leader. We only see bits and pieces of him as a full picture of him is never really developed. I know we are seeing the story from the eyes of one man, Uhtred, and his perspective of Alfred is negative, even though his respect for Alfred certainly grows as the series progresses. Still, as I begin each book, I always find myself hoping Cornwell willl spend more time on Alfred, but he never does. Alfred’s character is purely secondary and flat. I want to feel attached to him, I want to understand why the chroniclers called him “The Great,” I want to feel in awe of him when he shows up throughout the story, but I never do . Alfred is the same from book one to book four. He is pious. He is organized. He is shrewd. He is intelligent. But he is not a warrior, or at least we never see him in that capacity. There needs to be more given to Alfred than just these simple characteristics.

Cornwell does spend more time with some of the other characters in this novel, however. We see more of Uhtred’s wife, Gisela, and we get to see Uhtred as a father to his daughter. A gentle side is not something we often see of Uhtred, and it adds a layer of complexity to his character that I wish Cornwell would develop more. Steapa and Finan, Uhtred’s companions of war, are back. The ever-likeable Father Willibald plays a prominent role. He is married now to Ragnar’s sister, and as always, is compassionate and gentle. He is a character I think everyone likes, but I could be wrong. Even Uhtred likes him, and that’s rare because Willibald is a Christian priest.

Cornwell also gives Athelflaed, King Alfred’s daughter, a large part in the novel. A good portion of the last part of the novel revolves around her, even though the majority of her story line is fictional, which is somewhat disappointing given her many accomplishments in England’s history. Of course, she is only fourteen or fifteen in this novel, so perhaps we will start to see her importance in the next novel, The Burning Land.

As a trademark of the other novels, Sword Song has its share of battle scenes. The battle for London shows Uhtred’s willingness to take risks and the confidence he has in his abilities as a military strategist. The battles are fairly predictable with only a few surprises, but they are still entertaining. Also, this novel did not seem quite as violent and gruesome as Lords of the North.

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

11 thoughts on “Review of Sword Song by Bernard Cornwell”

  1. I think I’m going to check this series out. I’ve been away from Cornwell for a little while now, so this might be a good way to pick up some of his work other than the Sharpe series.

  2. Great review, & I would like to see a more dimensional characterization of Alfred. There were times I felt like slapping him for putting up with Athelflaed’s abuse by her husband. Other than that, I love this series!

  3. It’s certainly worth reading. The battle scenes can be fairly violent and graphic, so if you don’t like that sort of thing, you might want to stay away. Also, the women characters in Cornwell’s novels are never too terribly interesting. The most interesting one he had in this series was Brida, but she doesn’t play a major role anymore.

    Karen, I have to agree. I didn’t find it realistic that Alfred would allow his daughter to be abused like that, especially since they were real close to one another. It didn’t even seem to bother Alfred, at least from Uhtred’s perspective. I suppose if we could get inside Alfred’s character, we might see things differently. I have to assume the historical accuracy of Athelflaed being abused like that is incorrect, but I haven’t studied her much.

  4. Steven,
    If I recall correctly, nothing much is known about Athelflaed’s marriage. I agree with you on Cornwell’s portrayal of women. However, women were pretty much chattel back then so Cornwell’s rendering of women characters is more or less realistic. There is a lot of violence in his books, but again, this is the Viking era & the Saxons & Vikings both wanted “England”. Cornwell is a master at telling a story. It does help though that he’s descended from the owners of Bamburgh Castle. 🙂

  5. Karen,

    Yes, women were pretty much treated as property, so you make a good point. Also, the violence doesn’t bother me. Cornwell is the best of any writer I’ve read at putting the reader directly in the front lines of a battle scene. He is able to capture the chaos perfectly and make you feel everything the POV character feels, and after you’re done, you feel as though you’ve almost experienced the battle yourself. He is indeed a master.

  6. Steven:

    Sword Song looks like it’s going to be better in some ways, than Cornwell’s previous books. He may even be learning to develop female character a little more than he has in the past. His writing is always good, though, and I look forward to getting it at some time on the not too distant future.

  7. I’m going to be bold enough to say I’ve never heard of Cornwell or this series. (Being a SAHM, I often feel like I live under a rock, but one covered with little people…that is, my children.)

    PS: Thank you for visiting my blog & critiquing my poem. I welcome it!

  8. Anne – While the book spends more time with Aethelflaed than other female characters in the series, Cornwell still doesn’t develop her as well as I would have liked. I don’t want you to have the false impression that his female characters in this one are that much better than in the past. I still think Brida, in The Last Kingdom, was the most interesting female character in the series.

    Terresa, You’re welcome. I really enjoyed reading your poetry.

  9. I’ve already read Cornwell’s “The Warlord Chronicles” and his “Stonehenge” and enjoyed both. His graphic writing is very much to my liking, though as some already mentioned his female characters are a bit two-dimensional for my taste. In “Stonehenge”, though, that last aspect isn’t that present.

    Your review made me want to check the “Saxon Stories”.

    But I’m just about to start on “A Song of Ice and Fire”, so I’ll just save Cornwell for later…

    Anyway, interesting blog you’ve got here. I shall pop up once in a while. And thanks for your comment on my blog, by the way.

  10. The Warlord Chronicles, Agincourt, and Stonehenge are on my list to read next from Cornwell. A lot of people say The Warlord Chronicles are his best.

    You’ll enjoy the Saxon Stories, especially if you enjoy his battle sequences. This series has some really good ones. The Last Kingdom is book number one, followed by The Pale Horseman, Lords of the North, Sword Song, and Burning Land. My reviews of The Pale Horseman and Lords of the North are as follows:

    http://steventill.com/2008/02/25/bernard-cornwell-the-pale-horseman-saxon-chronicles-book-2/

    http://steventill.com/2010/01/11/review-of-lords-of-the-north-by-bernard-cornwell/

    I never did review The Last Kingdom, which is still my favorite in the series, but I read it a while ago before I even started my blog.

    Also, you might want to read his Grail Quest Series (The Archer’s Tale, Vagabond, and Heretic) if you haven’t already. That was the series that got me hooked on Cornwell.

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