The Saxon Chronicles 2 : The Pale Horseman


Bernard Cornwell




Date Reviewed:

February 13, 2008

he Pale Horseman is the second book in Bernard Cornwell's entertaining Saxon Chronicles. Once again the narrative focuses on Uhtred, the son a Northumbrian lord who was captured by the Danes, and then switched back to fight on the side of the English. After the big battle that ended the first novel (The Last Kingdom), the Danish invaders have declared an uneasy truce with King Alfred.

Uhtred knows the truce won't last - the Danes are merely buying time while they marshall their forces for another assault - but King Alfred is a devout believer of God, and besides, he holds hostages that would be slain immediately if the Danes attacked. One of the Danish hostages is Uhtred's good friend Ragnar. Uhtred despises the pious King Alfred, he would gladly switch back to fighting on the side of the Danes, but with Ragnar a hostage, there is no Danish chieftain who protect Uhtred from the wrath of the other Danish warlords - Uhtred played an important role in the English victory at the end of the first novel, and the Danes would like vengance. However, on the English side, King Alfred is not aware how crucial Uthred was to the battle, the glory of the English victory has been claimed by one of Uthred's English rivals.

Frustrated by his lack of recognition from King Alfred and his religious court, Uthred gathers a band of man into a boat and goes raiding along the west coast of Britain. This is dangerous business - there are boatloads of Dane warriors shuttling over from Ireland to join the army of Danish warriors in the forthcoming battle that will destroy Alfred and the English, and place the entire colony under Danish rule. Uthred is not motivated by political battles, he is looking for loot, and so attacks some of the towns. In one fray, he kidnaps a dark haired shadow queen named Iseult. Uthred is entranced by the black haired witch, despite the fact he is already married.

When Uthred returns from his raids, a priest accuses him before King Alfred, and a dramatic trial by combat is ordered. Uthred is a full grown man adept with a broadsword, but the man he must face is a giant warrior who is certain to defeat him.

Meanwhile, the Danes break the truce and full scale war breaks out. King Alfred is driven back before their attack, his forces are routed. The remaining English retreat into a dismal swamp to save themselves from the slaughter. Uthred reluctantly joins the English camp, because the Danes still want to kill him, despite the fact he would rather be fighting on their side.

There are some great scenes in this book - the creepy Iseult spellcasting to try and save one of King Alfred's sick sons; Uthred's attempt to sneak into a Danish stronghold to rescue a hostage, and the battle in the swamps. At the end of the novel, King Alfred leads his undermanned forces into the Battle of Ethandun, the fate of England rests on the outcome.

This is a great series so far. Cornwell has some great characters, both villainous and heroic, and tons of action to keep the story moving forward. It is brutal and authentic and fun to read. I hope this series continues for a while, I know there are at least two more already published.

One thing I didn't understand was the title. The pale horseman is one of the four riders of the Apocalypse, I thought the Pale Rider was the bringer of Pestilence. But plague does not figure into this story at all. The other three riders are War (red horse), Famine (yellow horse), and Death (black horse). Perhaps I have my horsemen confused!