Friday, January 9, 2015

The Empty Throne

As Bernard Cornwell’s millions of fans can testify, HarperCollins released the latest of his Saxon Tales (no. 8) in the United States three days ago. Of course, readers in the UK and Australia have had The Empty Throne for months, which is nice for them. But for us here in the USA, it’s been available only as advance review copies (ARCs) until now.

One perk (actually, the main perk besides having the chance to chat with a bunch of fascinating and informative people) of hosting New Books in Historical Fiction is that publishers send me books for free, either because I ask for them or because the publicists hope I will like the novels enough to request an interview. One book I received unsolicited was Bernard Cornwell’s The Pagan Lord, the previous Saxon Tale. It had to arrive unsolicited because, although I knew who Bernard Cornwell was, I’d always rather assumed that his books were more Sir Percy’s cup of tea than mine. I’ve read a lot of books set in wartime, of course, but generally not books told from the point of view of a warrior. But since my Daniil and Ogodai are warriors—as almost all male aristocrats at the time were—I thought it would be good for my writing as well as a wonderful coup for New Books in Historical Fiction to read this book and interview Bernard.

As it turned out, I loved the book. I read several others earlier in the series and plan to read more. And I very much enjoyed my conversation with Bernard. Skype was not on its best behavior that day—in fact, it’s never behaved worse—but Marshall Poe, editor in chief of the New Books Network, did a great job of fixing the flaws. For more about the interview, see “There’s Always Been an England?” Or just listen to and download the free podcast by clicking on the link earlier in this paragraph.

As a result, I was delighted to receive a copy of The Empty Throne. Bernard’s publicist and I decided that it would be more effective to wait for a few more books in the series to come out before we schedule another interview, so instead I have reviewed the book on (as CJP), BookLikes, and Goodreads and linked to the review on Facebook, as well as other social media. I won’t repeat that review verbatim here. Instead, I’d like to focus on one element of the story that I find particularly effective. That is Cornwell’s handling of his hero’s advancing age.

Elizabeth Peters, the mystery writer whose death I memorialized in “The Sands of Time,” once said that if she’d known how popular her heroine Amelia Peabody would become, she would never have mentioned her age in the first book (I’m paraphrasing—these are not her exact words). Amelia was thirty-two when she met her husband Emerson, who was a few years older than she, in 1884; and by the time Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun almost four decades later, readers did have to suspend disbelief to follow Peabody and Emerson through their escapades on the Western Bank. I structured my Legends series as I did in part to avoid that problem (not that I have anything like Elizabeth Peters’ readership, but one can hope); even if it does continue, as I’m beginning to think it may, past the original five books into a short spinoff series, it still won’t extend over more than ten years in time.

But Cornwell’s series is different, in that I suspect the author knew from the beginning that he would follow his hero Uhtred into extreme old age. Cornwell’s larger story traces the formation of a united England out of seven warring kingdoms, and however fictional Uhtred’s life, it follows a historical timeline that was set a millennium ago. When Cornwell decided to start The Last Kingdom (Saxon Tale no. 1, due to become a blockbuster BBC miniseries someday soon) with Uhtred as a ten-year-old in 866, he could predict that his saga must cover seventy years or so. Even Uhtred, the mightiest of mighty warlords, may have a hard time swinging his sword Serpent Breath at eighty.

The Empty Throne is where we begin to see how Cornwell plans to handle that problem going forward. The book opens with wording almost identical to that of The Last Kingdom: “My name is Uhtred. I am the son of Uhtred, who was the son of Uhtred, and his father was also called Uhtred. My father wrote his name thus, Uhtred, but I have seen the name written as Utred, Ughtred, or even Ootred.” And with that third sentence, an alert reader understands that this speaker is not the Uhtred of The Last Kingdom, whose father could not read or write, but another with the same name. The whole first chapter is told in the past tense, as if the speaker’s father were dead, and reveals this new Uhtred to be a true chip off the old block, to borrow a clichĂ©.

It’s a clever device, and it works. The son can swashbuckle to his heart’s content, while his father, true to his character, ignores a serious wound in his struggle to protect and promote the Saxon cause. And as readers, we have to wonder whether at some point Cornwell will pull the rug out from under us and retire the older Uhtred altogether, leaving his son to supervise the final unification of England. In this sense, the title is a double play on words: the empty throne is not only Alfred’s but also potentially Uhtred’s. The introduction of a new narrator creates uncertainty, uncertainty creates tension, and tension pulls readers into the story. What else, in the end, does a novelist want?

I hope Uhtred the Elder makes it to the end. Like so many others, I have become rather attached to him. But I tip my imaginary helmet to Cornwell, who has been and remains a master storyteller. And you can bet I’ll be standing in line for book 9.

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