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