Monday, March 21, 2011

Review: Sword Song, by Bernard Cornwell

As always, in Sword Song, Bernard Cornwell tells a great story: there's panache, artistic licence intertwined with historical accuracy, likeable characters, a definite plot and pleasing conclusion. Indeed, his ending to the novel could well be the piece most definitively "Bernard Cornwell" in the book's 400-plus pages. As in all the works of his I have read, there is a battle at the end - the result of which could sway an over-arching war one way or another. It is thus with Sword Song

- the hero of the Saxon Chronicles, Uhtred, is decides on one particular course of action yet ends up in another, a fight.

But that's OK - who reads Bernard Cornwell for the romance? It's satisfying to see characters you like end a novel happy (or alive) and equally pleasing to see those agreeable ones treat women in a way the Dark Ages wouldn't have regarded as enlightened, but madness. You read Cornwell for his ability to shape major historical events into his fictions and to learn a little of the society of the day based around "guy stuff" - shagging, sickness and slaughter. In his Saxon chronicles - of which Sword Song is the fourth and perhaps most gratifying - he expands upon a world he brought to life in his prior works on the period.

As we posited in The Winter King, the Saxon Chronicles comprise many Cornwell staples: our hero's rank, back story, education, society position and profession. It ends with a suitably climactic battle - a climactic trade negotiation obviously a contradiction in terms - after a more straightforward plot even though the maturing Uhtred learns to curb his impetuousness. As much as the first three books in the series were jammed close together, time has passed by this volume and as such it's a relief to read a continuing dialogue which has the characters visibly maturing.

Sword Song also surrounds our hero with strong women who serve both as major plot points and as window-dressing: this volume bases itself around Alfred the Great (the only English king to bear that name) and his daughter, Aethelflaed. Indeed with Cornwell his view of history is obvious: he treats all characters with respect and gives them motives; yet his heroes positively gleam off the pages. He wants you to admire the people he appreciates. And though Uhtred is the hero and you can't help but like him, Cornwell's touch is evident in that his background characters, male and female, all leave you wanting to know more about them.

Much of what I learned early about history, I picked up from watching and reading the early historical stories of Doctor Who. By the time I was ten, I knew Marco Polo was a Venetian trader serving in the court of Kublai Khan, not just a silly pool game. I knew more about the Battle of Culloden than my history teachers. I have David Whitaker and Sidney Newman to thank for that. Now, as I continue my education about times past, it is led by interest generated by the works of Bernard Cornwell.

In summation, Sword Song is one of the best of his Saxon Chronicles, scoring footballs.

ed: Sword Song is book four of the Saxon Chronicles, a continuing cycle starting with The Last Kingdom and continuing with The Pale Horseman and Lords of the North.

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