Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Book review: "Sword Song", by Bernard Cornwell

Although I had read several of Bernard Cornwell's 'Sharpe' series of books, I had never read any of his other historical fiction before.

'Sword Song' is set nearly 1,000 years earlier than the Sharpe series, in an England that is split into four kingdoms and riven by two worlds - the native Saxons and the barren savagery of the Norsemen and the Danes. War and violence is everywhere.

The protagonist, Uhtred, is half Saxon and half Dane, and has to live his life balanced on a sword-edge between the two worlds. He worships the Norse Gods, yet has sworn an oath to the Christian Saxon King Alfred.

It is written in the first person, and is told as a memoir; Uhtred is looking back on his life, and in particular a period of time in 885 when the Viking raiders held London, at the meeting point of the kingdoms of Wessex, Mercia and Anglia. Uhtred is commanded by Alfred to capture London back from the Vikings, a task that forces him to decide in which world his loyalty really lies.

Like the Sharpe books, the pace is very fast, with frequent frantic action that keeps you reading on. The characters are also very well drawn, from Uhtred himself, to Pyrlig, the obese warrior-turned-priest.

The ending is very satisfying; as it is a first-person memoir you knew Uhtred would survive, and so Bernard Cornwell wisely does not make this the main drama in the book. Instead, the fate of King Alfred's daughter, Įžthelflaed, lies in the balance.

With any historical novel, it is important to have the facts correct. In many ways this becomes easier the further back in history you go - the less that is known about an era, the less you can be accused of having got wrong. This book certainly feels authentic; the attitudes of the Saxons to the Vikings and the Vikings to the Saxons seem realistic, as are the way that the various religions are depicted. If there are any mistakes, then they certainly do not detract from the story. At the end of the book there is an historical note, where Bernard Cornwell details some of the concessions he has made to history. Additionally, at the start there is a fascinating glossary of the place names, converting them from the Saxon used in the book to the contemporary.

It is interesting to compare this book to the last one I read, Karin Slaughter's Triptych. Both are violent books - it is hard to write a book about the Saxon - Viking wars without having violence, yet in some way the violence in 'Sword Song' is so much less obtrusive. I would almost say that Bernard Cornwell writes the violence effortlessly. The violence in 'Triptych' was like being bludgeoned repeatedly over the head with a hammer, whilst that in 'Sword Song' was like having a lullaby sung to you as someone stabs you in the back. Just as nasty, but strangely relaxing.

I would give this book 4.5 out of 5. It was engrossing and fun to read, and I definitely want to read more in the Uhtred series of books.

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