Lords of the North

Bernard Cornwell

Harper Collins, 2007. ISBN 978-0-00-721970-4. 377 pages.

Lords of the North is Book 3 in Bernard Cornwell's Uhtred series, set in 878-880 AD mostly in Northumbria, against the backdrop of the conflict between Alfred the Great and the Danes*. Historical figures such as Alfred the Great, Ivar Ivarrson, King Guthred and Abbot Eadred feature as secondary characters. The main characters are fictional.

Uhtred is now aged 21, a seasoned and highly capable warrior. After Alfred the Great's victory over the Danes at the battle of Ethandun (told in Book 2, The Pale Horseman), Alfred and the Danes have signed a peace treaty. For the moment there is no fighting in the south of England, and Uhtred is angry with Alfred, feeling he has been short-changed after his role at Ethandun. So he returns to his native Northumbria to pursue a blood-feud against the Danish warlord Kjartan the Cruel, who murdered Uhtred's foster-father Ragnar five years previously and now holds Ragnar's daughter Thyra prisoner (told in Book 1, The Last Kingdom). Northumbria is riven by violence and political chaos, and Uhtred finds himself becoming the mentor and right-hand man of its new King Guthred. Uhtred hopes to use Guthred to further his revenge on Kjartan, but instead finds that Guthred is using him. Betrayed into slavery, it will take all Uhtred's determination - and a little help from some old friends - to survive and pursue his feud to its bloodstained climax at Kjartan's impregnable stronghold of Dunholm.

I admit that I was a little disappointed with Books 1 and 2, which is why I haven't reviewed them here. They seemed longer on incidental detail, such as how to paint shields or burn charcoal, and thinner on story than is usual for a Bernard Cornwell adventure. I found the portrayal of Alfred unconvincing, and I found it frustrating that the first-person narrative meant I had to see everything through the eyes of Uhtred, a belligerent teenager who thinks any problem can be solved by murder if he feels like it. However, in this third instalment Uhtred is starting to grow up a little and even to recognise that other people might have their own point of view, becoming more interesting as a result. Alfred is a shadowy figure in the background, and so little is known of Northumbria around 880 that there's essentially no history to get in the way of an exciting action-adventure yarn of the kind that Bernard Cornwell does so well.

If you're already familiar with Bernard Cornwell's military adventures (Sharpe, the Grail Quest, etc), Lords of the North is very much in the same mould. Uhtred is the near-invincible warrior-hero - since the series is framed as him looking back on his adventures from extreme old age, the reader already knows he is indestructible - a loner with ties to both Alfred's Wessex and to the Danes. The trademark battle scenes are as frequent and graphic as one would expect, and after two climactic shield-wall clashes in Books 1 and 2 we are treated to a different type of engagement in Book 3.

Uhtred's adventures spin along with hardly a dull moment, this time taking him as far afield as Iceland. Some of the plot twists are, well, improbable, and the outcome of the battle for Kjartan's stronghold is not much short of fanciful. But the narrative sweeps along with such verve that I just suspended my disbelief and enjoyed the ride, without bothering over plausibility (even if I did find myself saying later, "Now hang on a minute, if she could do that, how come she'd been a prisoner all this time?").

Uhtred, the central character and narrator, is a more interesting figure than I found him in the two previous books, perhaps because he seems to be starting to realise that life is not always quite as simple as "if it annoys you, kill it, if it wears a skirt, hump it". He is even beginning to get a glimmer that Alfred is more than a priest-ridden wimp; the two men are never going to like one another, and therein no doubt lies several more books' worth of dramatic conflict, but there's a hint of respect starting to emerge. Alfred's daughter Aethelflaed, now aged 9, gets a walk-on part, so it looks as if Bernard Cornwell is still setting up to make her the heroine of later books in the series - as the historical Aethelflaed deserves. I confess I was also mildly gratified to see that I had correctly spotted her husband-to-be when he first appeared in Book 1. A feature I particularly liked about Lords of the North is that it shows the Danes and the English beginning to mingle and integrate in Northumbria.

Although this is Book 3 in the series, all the novels can stand alone and you don't have to have read the first two books to read this one.

A rattling adventure yarn full of derring-do. Imagine Sharpe with swords and Vikings rather than rifles and Frenchmen, and you won't be far wrong.

*Vikings, if you prefer.