© 2006 Bernard Cornwell
Only the small kingdom of Wessex stands between the Danes and total control of England, and few are convinced that the sickly King Alfred is a man capable of leading the Saxons to freedom. He cares more for bishops and churches than warriors and fortifications, and many refugees in Wessex see his defeat as inevitable. Alfred is one of the few men who truly believes England can and will free herself, however, and his hope rallies men with a stake in freedom to his side. Even Uhtred Ragnarson, who despises Alfred for his weak-willed piety, has pledged to help Alfred prepare to drive the Norse away before the increasing waves of soldiers, women, slaves, and settlers make such a goal impossible to achieve. Alfred is still mulling over possible routes to victory when thee Danes launch a preemptive strike at the onset of winter: Wessex, the last hope, is lost. Fleeing into the swamps, Alfred and a few isolated followers prepare for the worst. The next fight could very well be their last.
The Pale Horseman follows The Last Kingdom in Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Chronicles series, being told by Uhtred Ragnarson, a Saxon prince-king turned Danish warrior who is capable of supporting either side. In every way but birth, he is a Dane -- but his ambition to return to his family's ancestral domain of Babbanburg as its rightful lord keeps him defending a man he hates. Fate gives him plenty of opportunities to reconsider the object of his loyalties, and he proves himself time and again a 'rogue agent'.
Uhtred tells his story in a confident voice -- he is ruthless, strong, blunt, and often dramatic, as befits his character. Cornwell uses his narrator's voice and a detailed, realistic background to draw the reader into a setting of uncertainty, war, and competing forces. The armies of the Saxons and Norse clash, but so do the values of the effete Alfred and those of his subjects, whose worldviews are sometimes more influenced by the 'old ways' than imperial Christianity. Cornwell is certainly evocative: he draws me into his stories like no one else. I could feel as though I was at Uthred's side, my feet slipping in the muck of the swamps, a sword at my side as the lightening flashed and the thunder rumbled above. I tend to read 'around' combat scenes in historical fiction, but that is not the case here -- the author keeps my attention even in the thick of battle.
The Pale Horseman is not quite as good as The Last Kingdom in my judgment (not as many fun-loving Danes, alas, and there's less mystery as to the end-page resolution), but remain excellent historical fiction nonetheless featuring good writing, a lively atmosphere, and compelling characters. This is an easy series to recommend, and I anticipate continuing in it.