Tuesday, November 26, 2019

The Indomitable Uhtred

I’ve had the great good fortune to interview the bestselling novelist Bernard Cornwell several times for New Books in Historical Fiction, most recently in reference to his War of the Wolf, which came out last year. I was supposed to interview him again yesterday, but as I reached the midpoint in Uhtred’s latest adventure, Sword of Kings, I realized it would be difficult to talk for 30–35 minutes without either giving away spoilers or forcing Bernard to repeat points he’s already made more than once.

This difficulty has nothing to do with the novel itself, which is another page turner, well worth your money and your time. But at no. 12 in a series, every relationship we might discuss has a past, and at this point even naming new characters or mentioning what has happened to old ones robs readers who begin at the beginning from following these developments for themselves.

As it turns out, there was a practical reason for canceling the planned interview and substituting this blog post—one I couldn’t have anticipated at the time. Suffice it to say that the arrival of workmen with hammers and saws and electric drills, however welcome in terms of acquiring a deck that didn’t threaten to collapse under the next person intrepid enough to walk on it, would have severely obstructed our conversation.

So what I have to offer instead is a quick look at the setup of Sword of Kings, which I hope will circumvent the spoiler problem while still encouraging Uhtred fans to pick up the latest installment and those who haven’t yet discovered our favorite Saxon warrior (reared as a Dane and steadfastly pagan despite pressure from all sides to convert to Christianity) to seek out The Last Kingdom in print or on Netflix and get themselves up to speed.

In Sword of Kings, Uhtred is at home in Northumbria, which by the beginning of this novel in 924 has become the last holdout against the campaign of King Alfred the Great’s descendants to reunite all the Saxon kingdoms into a single country that will one day be known as England. Danes still raid the coasts and, when possible, settle in wilder parts of the island, but for the most part the once-separate territories of Wessex, East Anglia, and Mercia have established themselves as a more or less unified Christian nation under the rule of King Alfred’s son Edward.

But after twenty-five years on the throne, Edward dies, leaving an adult heir, Aethelstan, whose legitimacy Edward has placed in question by denying that he was legally married to Aethelstan’s mother; a boy named Aelfweard, whom few people in the kingdom like or respect but who has powerful support from his uncle, who also happens to be a mortal enemy of Uhtred; and Edward’s last wife, who responds to her husband’s death by fleeing with her two children and Aelfweard’s uncle in hot pursuit, determined to put an end to the three of them.

Naturally, Uhtred has to intervene, although at sixty-four he’d much rather remain by his own hearthside and let the English work out their own problems. He knows full well that their unification sets up the conquest of his beloved Northumbria. But Uhtred has sworn an oath, and oaths are serious business for a tenth-century warrior, especially one who hopes to spend his afterlife roistering, drinking, fighting, and wenching in Valhalla. So Uhtred goes south, and in so doing, he again plays a part in realizing King Alfred’s great dream.

The novel releases on November 26, 2019—which is why, as compensation for having to cancel the interview, I’m running this post on Tuesday rather than Friday.

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