Book Review: Sword Song by Bernard Cornwell

Genre: Historical Fiction
Publishing Info: HarperCollins (2010)
Pages: 365

Back Cover Summary:

To serve a king or become one? Uhtred – warrior, pagan, scourge of the Vikings – faces a hard choice.

Despite being offered a crown of his own, Uhtred is a man of his word. And he gave it to King Alfred of Wessex, who dreams of an England free from Vikings. So when the king orders him to take London from the Danes and hand it to his foolish son-in-law Aethelred, Uhtred agrees despite his concerns.

For Aethelred’s wife is the king’s spirited daughter Aethelflaed and her fate is entwined with Uhtred’s. And fate will not be denied …

Uhtred of Bebbanburg’s mind is as sharp as his sword. A thorn in the side of the priests and nobles who shape his fate, this Saxon raised by Vikings is torn between the life he loves and those he has sworn to serve.

Sword Song, the fourth book in Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom series, feels very assured with its plot. It may be said that the scope of the narrative is smaller than its predecessors but what is included, its climax in particular, feels all the more stronger for it.

This feels like the most assured of the novels in The Last Kingdom series so far. The first three books all culminated in big battles between factions fighting for the crown, which were spectacular set pieces but lacking a more personal touch. In Sword Song, a battle for control of the city of London takes place halfway through the book, running the risk of the narrative peaking too soon. However, I was pleased that the climax was more exciting in comparison to the relatively bland London battle. By producing a rescue mission, Cornwell turns away from historical accuracy, something he discusses in his editor’s notes, but gives his main character a personal link to the outcome of the fight for the first time since tracking those down responsible for the death of his father. It felt very different in nature to the battles created earlier in the series but I found it the most successful element in the novel.

As the central characters have been established for a couple of books now, Cornwell is able to really flesh out Uhtred’s conflicted emotions, between fulfilling his oath to the King and helping a group of Danes so that he would become the ruler of East Anglia. Uhtred has always been a very interesting character due to his heritage from north of the country, being raised like a son by Danes, and making an oath of servitude to a Saxon. This creates an interesting dilemma for the character and I think it will be revisited in future books in the series, even though it didn’t come to anything substantial here. I was also pleased to see his parental-like relationship with the King’s daughter Aethelflaed being a major focus. As well as contributing to the tension of the climatic rescue, it creates another powerful internal conflict for Uhtred. Does he save her from her unhappy and abusive marriage to his own cousin, and risk breaking up the kingdom, or do nothing and watch as she gets bruised and exorcised for apparently being unfaithful? This is another narrative that, due to the events of the climax, hopefully will continue to be a focus in later books.

It would be incorrect to say that nothing significant occurs in Sword Song, but it does contain a lot of what I would call narrative fluff. With the battle to conquer London not featuring heavily, as well as a section where an exciting sounding battle takes place without Uhtred being present (a first for the series as far as I recall), the first half does suffer slightly. There were many pages dedicated to meetings between characters and a lot being said but not much actually happening. I am very glad that the first introduction of a supernatural element, a man rising from the grave to deliver a God-like message, turned out to be a red herring. This series is better than having to resort to gimmicks like that in order to make the plot more interesting.

Sword Song is a big indication that Cornwell is completely comfortable with this historical world he has developed. Unlike its predecessors, the plot doesn’t rely on a big battle for its climax and it is all the stronger for it. I will definitely continue with the series after reading this book.

Star Rating: 4/5

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