Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Lords of the North

Lords of the North
© 2007 Bernard Cornwell
317 pages

"Where the tides of fortune take us, no man can know."
"They're tricky, those tides..."
(Sisko and Gowron, "By Inferno's Light". Deep Space Nine.)

Only months ago, Uthred Ragnarson followed Alfred, the defeated king of Wessex, into the swamps and stayed by his side for a year, defending a man he hated despite their mutual contempt of one another. Now Alfred has returned to power, a triumph engineered by Uthred -- but there is no place for a Saxon warrior with a Dane's soul in Alfred's Christian kingdom. Scorning the meager and worthless scrap of land he is offered in return for his services, Uthred departs Alfred's court to settle a blood feud with an old adversary -- Kjartan the Cruel, who destroyed Uthred's home, killed his beloved adoptive father, and stole his sister-in-spirit away in a forced marriage. Armed with his two swords (Serpent-Breath and Wasp-Sting), his wiles, and a penchant for the dramatic, Uthred sets into the wilderness of 9th-century England, navigating through kingdoms of competing Danish lords and Saxon madmen.

Lords of the North is a marked improvement over The Pale Horseman, not that Horseman was less than stellar. Uthred is at his best and most entertaining when allowed to act as his own man, a rogue element in the constant power struggles that dominant the land. He's a magnificent beast of a character, wild and free -- and his quest to destroy Kjartan excuses him from the side of the so-far unlikeable King Alfred. The hallmarks of this series are all present -- excellent characterization, a vivid setting,  and dramatic but effectively blunt writing --  -- but Uthred's fate is far less predictable. Throughout the series, Uthred references the Three Spinners, whose wheels plot out the fates of all men. Their work has everyone in their grasp, and they do as they please, prompting Uthred to mutter "Wyrd bið ful aræd -- fate is inexorable"  on more than one occasion. Cornwell shocked me repeatedly throughout the book, as triumphs are followed by betrayal and redemption from unlikely corners. Lords of the North offers the exhilarating literary equivalent of crashing through white-water rapids in a longboat.

Cornwell again captivates me in Lords, a great pleasure to read. Though the book is excellent, I'm also glad to see that Alfred is shaping up as a character. The series is about his rise to greatness, but so far he's seemed like nothing but an impediment to Uthred's story.

On Wednesday I intend to check out the audiobook of this tale, just so I can experience it all over again.

"It is the three spinners who make our lives. They sit at the foot of Yggdrasil and there they have their jests. It pleased them to make Guthred the slave into King Guthred, just as it pleased them to send me south again to Wessex. While at Bebbanburg, where the grey sea never ceases to beat upon the long pale sands and the cold wind frets the wolf's head flag above the hall, they dreaded my return. Because fate cannot be cheated, it governs us, and we are all its slaves."

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