© 2011 Bernard Cornwell
Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings...
(Richard II, William Shakespeare)
Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, lays on his deathbed. Aged and long infirm, he has created a legacy to be proud of. He has united most of the Saxons under his kingdom, and for decades defended Britain against the expansion of the Danes. But his work is not yet complete; many still live within the realm of the Danish conquerors, and even what unity he has achieved may be destroyed upon his death, as Danish armies use it as an opportunity to resume their expansion. Alfred alone unites the Saxons, but if he dies the various petty kingdoms that Wessex consumed in its rise may break apart again. Alfred's son Edward does not command their respect the way Alfred did, however grudgingly, and a weak heir would threaten to reverse all of Alfred's accomplishments. But the dying king has a hope: he has...Uhtred of Bebbanberg, a Saxon prince raised by Danes who nonetheless serves Alfred, a true lord of war whose might and wit have been been the tools with which Alfred created and defended his kingdom. Now, in Alfred's final hours, he dispatches a final message to Uhtred, calling him to serve his court one more time. And so Uhtred is called to fight in what may be Wessex' darkest hour, and his battle provides another solid contribution to the Saxon stories series.
Death of Kings begins on an unlikely note, with Uhtred being asked to negotiate a peace conference. A chance exists that a Saxon king allied to the Danes may be persuaded to change loyalties, or at the very least refrain from joining the Danes in war against Wessex, and Alfred's court believes only Uhtred is strong enough to ensure that the king sees reason. Even so, Uhtred is a questionable choice for diplomat; he once killed a priest for insulting his wife, and did so as casually with one blow as we might swat a fly. Tact is a word that Uhtred doesn't know the meaning of, in either his own Old English or in Danish. But as one might expect from Cornwell, peace is only the calm before the storm. Soon enough the king will die, and Edward will be forced to fight rebellion and outside invasion simultaneously. Worse yet, he may not find the courage to use his strong arm, Uhtred, given that the warlord is hated by the Christians of the royal court for his pride and irreverence. However much the court dislikes Uhtred, he's a fantastic narrator. That irreverence provides humor in spades, and he has a penchant for drama; his tradition of introducing himself with a speech is maintained in the Death of Kings. Even more so than Richard Sharpe, Uhtred is earnest. He exults in the joy of life, even in battle. He sees himself as an actor in a larger drama, but what that story is, he leaves to the fates. While he despises the piety of the priests who make his life at court miserable, Uhtred's own faith in destiny -- his motto, 'Fate is inexorable' -- give him courage to try fantastic feats in the face of overwhelming odds. The result is a good read, often as funny as it is thrilling.