The Saxon Chronicles 3 : The Lords of the North


Bernard Cornwell




Date Reviewed:

March 7, 2010

his is the third novel of the Saxon Chronicles, and it is another enjoyable book in an excellent series. This is Bernard Cornwell's next installment in the ongoing saga of Uhtred. Since I am not yet tired of these novels, I am glad to see that there is now a fifth book in this series (The Burning Land) with perhaps even more books to follow. I understand that Cornwell wrote 15 or 20 novels about his hero Sharpe during the Napoleanic Wars - hopefully the tale of Uhtred doesn't expand to that scope. I like Uhtred well enough, but I don't know if I would be interested in another dozen tales of shield walls and sword battles in ancient England.

Lords of the North begins with Uhtred leaving pious King Alfred and journeying back to northern England, where he hopes to somehow oust his uncle from the castle at Bebbanburg, which Uhtred should rightfully have inherited upon his father's death. But even as he seeks to advance his own claims Uhtred is also aiding Alfred's agenda, because Uhtred will be battling Danes and Danes are the naturally enemies of King Alfred.

It doesn't take long for Uhtred to get mixed up in the battles of the North. He has sworn enemies in this land, and needs some clever ruses to escape the slavers. He ends up in the service of King Guthred, but the Danes outnumber Guthred, and the Danes hold the strongholds.

One thing I like about this series is that Cornwell does a great job inventing characters. It doesn't take pages of back story to introduce each one, yet somehow each character is distinct. I noticed in the assault on the fortress Dunholm how many warriors were involved in the battle, and despite the number of Saxon and Danish swordsmen each character was unique enough that I could track who was who, whether it was mighty Steapa or Kjartan the Cruel, the Irish man Finan the Agile, mighty axe-wielding Steapa, young Clapa (whom Uhtred was going to execute, but instead adopted as a squire), or the Danish warrior Ragnar, the lifelong friend of Uhtred. I think this characterization shows Cornwell's talent as a writer, he surrounds Uhtred with a believable cast. Also, Cornwell writes some pretty good battle scenes.

Uhtred seems to have a secular view of the world (though he frequently mentions how the Three Fates control our lives), but the men around him are quite superstitious. They fear omens, they believe that casting bones can predict the future, and they are haunted by fears of undead warriors. Uhtred takes advantage of these superstitions by disguising himself as the Dark Swordsman of Niffelheim, a leper - when he frees the likable but untrustworthy King Guthred from slavery. But later in the book, when reading about a seemingly magical deed performed by Thyra, and I wondered why Uhtred isn't more superstitious himself, because Cornwell makes it seem that magic DOES exist in Uhtred's world. I recall that in the first novel, another woman (Brida?) performed an inexplicable (ie: magical) deed to save the son of King Alfred in the swamps. Given what he sees, and given his education level, shouldn't Uhtred himself be more superstitious?

Uhtred ultimately seeks to reclaim Bebbanburg from his treacherous uncle. Uhtred doesn't get much closer to this goal by the end of Lords of the North, but the reader gets to follow him through multiple battles and adventures along the way. Perhaps after a few more volumes of shield walls and duels I will grow tired of Uhtred's exploits - after all, even the best warrior in the world must slip some time, get hit by a random arrow, or get stabbed from behind in a battle melee - but for now I am still enjoying these books and will continue reading them.