Tuesday, December 27, 2011

REVIEW: Sword Song by Bernard Cornwell

Synopsis (from Goodreads): The year is 885, and England is at peace, divided between the Danish Kingdom to the north and the Saxon kingdom of Wessex in the south. Warrior by instinct and Viking by nature, Uhtred, the dispossessed son of Northumbrian lord, has land, a wife and children-and a duty to King Alfred to hold the frontier on the Thames. But a dead man has risen, and new Vikings have invaded the decayed Roman city of London with dreams of conquering Wessex...with Uhtred's help. Suddenly forced to weigh his oath to the king against the dangerous turning side of shifting allegiances and deadly power struggles, Uhtred-Alfred's sharpest sword-must now make the choice that will determine England's future.

My thoughts: Sword Song-the 4th installment in the Saxon Chronicles-reunites us with Uhtred of Bebbanburg who has got to be one of my favorite characters in all of historical fiction.  Things I love about Uhtred: his word is his bond.  Whether it is what he really wants to do or not, if he gives his oath to someone he keeps it (which is why he is still the defender of Christian King Alfred).  He has battle skills like no other.  Hearing about being in the shield wall and about the various engagements he finds himself in is what really makes these books shine.  He doesn't back down from anyone and says exactly what is on his mind.  Often times these quips are priceless and a real highlight of the books for me.  Finally, he is not two dimensional.  He is a warrior, a great strategist, lover, and a person who is conflicted about where his true destiny lies-living as a Dane and reclaiming his rightful place in Bebbanburg or continuing to fight for Alfred.

In this installment Alfred decides to wed his daughter Aethelflaed to Athelred (Uhtred's cousin) and make him King of Mercia.  Alfred's vision is to unite the country now divided between Saxon and Dane as one (England) and the wedding is a way to expand his allegiances.  As a wedding present he asks Uhtred to take London which has recently been occupied by the Danes.  The Danes are led by brothers Erik and Sigefrid who tempt Uhtred with an offer of their own-help them gain access to Wessex (the territory held by Alfred) and they will make him King of Mercia.  Uhtred must decide whether to keep his oath to Alfred or break it and make his own destiny.

Upon originally reading the synopsis for Sword Song I was a little worried that it would be pretty much like the other three books in the series with little new ground covered.  I need not have worried though because this time we meet a more mature Uhtred which already made things a bit different.  He is a family man now with a wife and two kids and he realizes his decisions don't just impact him but them as well.  Cornwell does bring back characters from the other novels-Father Pyrlig (Welsh Priest and friend of Uhtred), his oath men Steapa, Clapa, Finan and Cerdic, Father Beocca (Priest and mentor to Uhtred) and his wife Gisela.  He also shifts the focus to new characters Erik and Sigefrid (one who is honorable and the other who is completely ruthless) and expands on characters who were quite minor previously (Aethelred and Aethelflaed).  One thing that tends not to change are the battle scenes because they are just as detailed and violent as those depicted in the three previous novels.  There was no lack of  fights and battle scenes in Sword Song.

My only gripe with these books is I wish he would give the characters names that were easier to pronounce instead of ones that sound like someone is sneezing but then that would take away from the authenticity I guess. 

I think each successive book keeps getting better and better.  This one did a great job moving the story along and setting the reader up for The Burning Land (book 5 of the Saxon Chronicles) where Uhtred faces his biggest battle against the Vikings yet.  I can't wait to read this one and I hope Cornwell writes several more in the Saxon series before he sends Uhtred off into retirement.

 This book is from my own personal library


  1. I have only read the first book in this series so far but I really enjoyed it. I get around the name pronunciation problem by listening to them on audiobook!

  2. I enjoyed this book very much, as well as the while Saxon Chronicle series: http://wordsandpeace.com/2011/06/02/my-review-40-of-sword-song/
    Cornwell was a great discovery for me, and I plan to read more by him

  3. Have you tried his Warlord Chronicles about King Arthur? Those were my first Cornwell books and they were really good as well.