Set in the year 885, this is the continuing story of Uhtred of Bebbanburg and the Saxon Tales. Like its predecessors this fourth entry into the series offers vivid and dramatic battle scenes, but the violence (while true to this period in history) does not overshadow well drawn characters – both historical and fictional – that add depth and human interest to the origins of modern day England.
Following the defeat of the Viking Guthrum, Alfred the Great is looking to consolidate his rule over all the kingdoms (not just Wessex but Mercia, East Anglia, and Northumbria) and bring Christianity to the whole country. To do so he must protect his borders from further Viking raids and Uhtred is sworn to aid him in this effort.
When Sigefrid and Erik Thurgilson capture and occupy London, Alfred’s control of the Thames River is threatened. Now Uhtred must weigh his oath to Alfred against his own ambitions. A mixture of both Saxon and Dane, Uhtred has divided loyalties that will be tested by predictions that he will be king of Mercia if he allies himself with the Vikings.
Bernard Cornwell engages the reader in the narrative of shifting allegiances and power struggles. Alfred’s treacherous nephew, Aethelwold, covets the throne upon which Alfred sits and schemes with the Danes to lure Uhtred away from his oath to the king. News of a risen dead man foretells Uhtred’s kingship in the kingdom of Mercia. However, the vain and abusive Aethelred, married to Alfred’s eldest daughter, has already been promised the kingdom. His cruelty endangers his wife Ethelflaed, while his vanity and lack of leadership jeopardizes the campaign to recapture London. Uhtred must find a way to protect Ethelflaed from Aethelred, reveal Aetholwold’s treachery, and recapture London to fulfill his pledge to Alfred.
Sword Song is an apt title for the book as Uhtred again wields his sword Serpent-Breath in the battle for London. For anyone unfamiliar with Uhtred’s previous adventures please refer to my reviews of the three earlier books in the series: The Last Kingdom, Dec 7 2018; The Pale Horsemen, Jul 5, 2019; and The Lords of the North, Feb 26, 2020.
A united England in the ninth century is still just a dream, and there are many more adventures yet to be told. In total, Bernard Cornwell has written twelve books in this ongoing series with more to come! Some readers may find this disconcerting, but whenever I’m in the mood for rousing descriptions of battle and a rich history of the northward expansion that resulted in the realization of Alfred the Great’s dream, I find myself returning to the Saxon Tales.
Next up for me, somewhere down the road… The Burning Land.