Regular visitors will know, with just the occasional exception, it is predominantly books by indie (independent), self-published authors that are reviewed in this website. This however, is one of the exceptions: a hardback edition having been a very generous gift.
Bernard Cornwell is well known for his historical novels of which this is one.
The tale is primarily based in the period of King Alfred of Wessex’s reign (871 – 899 AD) during which the Danes sought to occupy the whole of the land. However, the king was determined to preserve Saxon England and to expand his rule over all English speaking areas of the country. This is when England, as it is known now, was created. What sort of place would Britain be had the Danes succeeded? Consequently, the story predominately deals with battles, skirmishes and intrigue: At the time Saxon England comprised a series of small independent kingdoms e.g. Wessex, Mercia, East Anglia, Northumbria, etc. Wales and Scotland were separate countries. Occupants of the area now known as Kent also considered it a separate kingdom though it was under the king’s rule.
The author explains how frustrating it is to find any consistent or detailed history of the times. Apparently any documents that do exist were originally kept by monasteries, which only annotated them when there was anything ‘they’ considered of import. Probably means such annotations were limited to events that impacted upon the monastery directly or upon the surrounding area. These annotations are what provide historical data of the times. Consequently, there is little correlation between documents. In view of the dissolution, when the majority of religious establishments were pillaged and destroyed, it is amazing any survived. Nevertheless, the author makes clear, other than some basic accounts of battles and people, much has to be inferred or guessed at. He has effectively used these sketchy details to build his story.
In addition to the battles and skirmishes, parts of the tale include visit’s to ‘witches’ and ‘oracles’. Though the majority of Saxons professed to be Christian, it is clear pagan beliefs still held a strong sway within them. Which held more weight is debatable but is not part of this review. The author also indicates how drugs, sex and money were a constituent part of these oracles.
The reader is also given an insight into the personal attitudes of the time. For example; how women, whatever their social rank, were looked upon. As with many older ones the society of the time was chauvinist. Women were virtually considered possessions and there was little guilt, at least among the hierarchy, about having mistresses. However, contradictorily, there are instances where the influence of women is acknowledged: The queen’s influence over her son, Prince Edward; The citizens of Mercia respecting, listening to and obeying the Princess.
Bernard Cornwell effectively describes the scenery and background to his tale. He also provides sufficient for the reader to have a concept of the times without going into tedious detail. For example:
- How areas, now built up, were then forests and woods.
- The richness and lusciousness of the land and crops.
- Living conditions e.g. how even the great halls had thatched roofs which dripped when soaked by heavy rain.
- How smelly and dirty the streets were.
- Health e.g. describes how even the king was dying in great pain surrounded with dirt.
- The country’s division into separate kingdoms and territories (Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Wessex, Kent, etc.) under the control of different peoples (Danes, Saxons)
- How wealth was displayed e.g. women wearing multiple gold and silver jewellery. Well-made, good quality, armour, swords, helmets all with gold and silver decoration.
This is an interesting read, especially when related to the historical occurrences of the time. Recommended to anyone who is interested in or enjoys historical books. It is also not a bad tale for anyone who simply enjoys a good book.
Four stars (4*).
The book is available in a variety of formats from multiple retailers: bricks-and-mortar shops as well as on-line.