Book Review: The Pale Horseman by Bernard Cornwell

Genre: Historical Fiction

Publishing Info: 2006 by HarperCollins (originally published in 2005)

Pages: 415

Star Rating: 3.5/5

The second book in Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom series builds on the first with a more in-depth narrative that allows the author to paint more details in context, setting and characterisation.

The big difference that The Pale Horseman has with its predecessor is the time frame it covers. The former covers well over a decade as Cornwell establishes the character of Uhtred, from captured slave with the Danes to a leader in battle. This novel only spans six months at the most but centres around a crucial period of Alfred’s reign and fight against the Danes. As a result, the world which Cornwell takes us into becomes more vivid and colourful, complimented by characters who are more fleshed out than in the first book.

The victory at the end of The Last Kingdom changes the mindset of the protagonist and readers can see his over confidence and brash nature. The author does a great job at conveying how Uhtred’s past affects his character. This is someone who was banished from his home and was brought up by Danes, so I’m glad that Cornwell didn’t go down the fully likeable protagonist route. This also creates a interesting moral quandary for Uhtred in that he has to fight the Danes, with whom he shares his childhood and desires, and side with the Christianity obsessed Saxons and their leader Alfred, with whom he made an oath.

A longer novel and a shorter time span allows the author to introduce new characters and add new dimensions to those readers have already met. The Briton queen Iseult makes for a far more interesting love interest than Mildrith or Brida due to the superstition surrounding her ‘abilities’. The peak of her arc comes when she cures Alfred’s sick son, only for Uhtred to discover that his estranged son died on the exact same day. Sadly Cornwell kills off the character at the climax of the novel, which I consider to be a bit of a waste of someone who had great potential.

On the flip side, other characters suffer from the longer novel with repetitious behaviours. Alfred comes across as incredibly dull and weak as a King, due to his unwavering faith in God and his general limp nature. A very long (potentially overly long) portion of the novel is set in a swamp with the central characters surrounded by the Danish forces and here we see more sides to Alfred than before. Unfortunately he reverts very quickly when the religious figures are re-introduced into the fray. I hope that Cornwell is teasing his true potential as a character rather than this being a blip.

For all that has been said about the longer text, there seems to be an over-abundance of characters, especially towards the final act. I understand that Cornwell wants to keep the action as historically accurate as can be, but on multiple occasions I struggled to remember the past actions and involvements of individuals when they were briefly mentioned in the text.

The ending is a mixed bag to me. On one hand the battle is far more epic in nature than the one which concluded The Last Kingdom. The descriptions are more action-packed and gritty, giving readers more detail into the organised chaos of battle. I’m also happy that Cornwell chose to focus solely on Uhtred’s role, so that the readers would be surprised by the bigger picture at the same time as the protagonist.

The flip side is that it ends very abruptly, too much so for a novel that went into so much detail. Maybe the author wanted to leave readers in anticipation to guarantee that they will read the next novel in the series. A couple of characters were killed off and though readers briefly saw how that affected Uhtred, the sudden ending left us on a cliffhanger in that aspect. I hope that the next book in the series immediately follows this in chronology so that his psychology and mindset can be explored after losing yet more people in his life.

The Pale Horseman successfully builds on its predecessor and for the most part delivers a richer experience to its readers, if a bit stretched over too many characters. The ending has definitely left me in anticipation and I will be reading book three, The Lords of the North, as soon as possible.

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