Book Review: The Lords of the North by Bernard Cornwell

Genre: Historical Fiction

Publishing Info: HarperCollins in 2010 (original version published in 2006)

Pages: 360

Star Rating: 4.5/5

Back Cover Summary

In a clash of heroes, the kingdom is born.

The year is 878 and the Vikings have been thrown out of Wessex. Uhtred, fresh from fighting for Alfred in the battle to free Wessex, travels north to seek revenge for his father’s death, killed in a bloody raid by Uhtred’s old enemy, renegade Danish lord, Kjartan.

While Kjartan lurks in his formidable stronghold of Dunholm, the north is overrun by chaos, rebellion and fear. Together with a small band of warriors, Uhtred plans his attack on his enemy, revenge fuelling his anger, resolute on bloody retribution. But he finds himself betrayed, and ends up on a desperate slave voyage to Iceland. Rescued by a remarkable alliance of old friends and enemies, he and his allies, together with Alfred the Great, are free to fight once more in a battle for power, glory and honour.

The third instalment in Cornwell’s The Saxon Stories series is a much more confident, flowing novel than its predecessor, despite a awkwardly written in finale.

The switch in setting, from the relatively civilised yet battle-worn Wessex, to the far more wild and unpredictable North, was definitely one of the strengths of this, as it allowed the character of Uhtred to develop far more than when he was battling Danish forces for King Alfred. The previous book in the series, The Pale Horseman, stuttered in the narrative in between the repetitive major battles, but here we get to see a richer variety in set pieces. With the exception of an unspectacular plot point involving a Christian Dane rising to the throne of Northumbria, there is quite a bit to enjoy here. There was a fair amount of the middle section on board a ship where Uhtred is a slave to a cruel master and the series’ best face-off yet against the Danes when Uhtred and his group ambush an ‘unbreachable’ fort.

It is the latter that I think best shows off how much of an improvement The Lords of the North is on the previous book. This isn’t just the chaotic and loud battles that robbed the narrative of any kind of variety. There was a cinematic nature to the description that made it surprisingly exciting to read through. I was also pleased to see the female characters have such diverse roles in this section, not just being pushed to sit out. The sheer contrast between the bravery and willingness to fight of Gisela and the almost mystic insanity of Thyra, as well as the inner strength and strong moral compass of Hild, highlights how the series is treating its female characters much better than tools or love interests who die off.

I think that this part of the novel was the best part of the series so far, which is why I am slightly baffled by the decision to not make this the climax. Instead, we are treated to a bodge job of a battle scene where the remaining Danish warlord is put down. It’s almost as though the writer realised he had loose ends to tie up and just threw it in at the end; as a result, it lacks any kind of tension and is quite dull to read about to be honest, especially since it is boxed by a bizarre comedy plot point about a missing religious relic. Considering this all comes in the last twenty pages, it is a very bizarre sequence of events to say the least.

After reading the conclusion, in retrospect, I wish more detail was added to the slave ship chapters. There was a lot of potential there to give a new dimension to the book’s world, having briefly explored the sea in the first book. It was really good to see Uhtred without any power and forced to face an eternity of servitude but I wish the author took it one step further. I wanted to see even more gory and disturbing description of what conditions were really like on board, but it just felt like an interlude before Uhtred would pick up where he left off. As a result, it was good, but not as effective as I wish it was.

With the threat in the North now vanquished, albeit in an awkward conclusion, the main focus of the narrative, featuring Uhtred and Alfred, can continue. It was good to see a different flavour of England being portrayed in this series and I’m sure Cornwell will come back to it in future novels when the protagonist faces off against his uncle. Overall, a very solid novel that I enjoyed reading. I will definitely return to this series in the future, so stay tuned to my blog for reviews on those!

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