Monday, May 21, 2012

Review: Death of Kings - Bernard Cornwell

Death of Kings is the sixth book in Cornwell's Saxon Tales, which chronicle the birth of England as a united land around the turn of the tenth century.  It is very much a case of "more of the same" by the author, who delivers one of his more workmanlike novels of his twenty-plus year career.

It goes without saying that Cornwell's research and ability to insert his characters into key points in history are excellent: it is what he does.  Steve Martin makes jokes, water is wet, sickness is not nice and Cornwell will compile immaculate situations, described well and totally contextual.  In fact, Death of Kings is so heavy in a major historical event that the storytelling actually suffers a little.

That event, the death of Alfred the Great and subsequent scrabble for the throne, sees the focus rest with the family of the only Saxon/English monarch to have the title "the Great".  That means that three so-far background characters - Alfred's sons Osferth and Edward as well as his nephew Aethelwold - occupy much of the foreground.

As the two sons play a role in the notional correct inheritance, they are afforded character development which really isn't present for many of the other characters.  Aethelflaed, obviously one of Cornwell's muses, has her role somewhat minimised, while the book's major protagonist Uhtred drives the plot as usual.  With the throne's occupancy somewhat unsettled, the storyline feels similarly transitory - a placemarker until the Saxons move forward into regaining territory lost to the Danish invasions.

The book does thaw of relations between Uhtred and Alfred while the latter lies upon his deathbed.  Despite five earlier episodes and both men over 40 (the middle-ages equivalent of 60 or more) their relationship of respect without liking each other had, as the characters, grown old.
Perhaps as a result of the rise in characters like Osferth in combination with the brutal and violent nature of military battles of the era, sees more of Uhtred's inner circle of warriors dying than for many years.  In the tenth century, warriors wouldn't live to their forties unless they were excellent/smart/lucky, so for Uhtred's cohort of men to make it through the past two books relatively unscathed is something of an anomaly.

While still engaging, Death of Kings lacks some of the easy congruency of the past three Saxon Tales, earning it a rating of tennis balls.

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