Death of Kings

Written by Bernard Cornwell
Review by Richard Lee

King Alfred is dying, and Uhtred, his ill-rewarded war captain, is faced again with the choice of his life: will he fight for the Christ-loving, church-bound Saxons, or will he join the Vikings at last, with whom his sympathies and perhaps his interests lie?

The Making of England series is Cornwell’s joyful rendition of Dark Ages Britain. It depicts an heroic age when the courage of one or two can turn a battle and all can be won or lost. In a sense it’s like Sharpe stripped of the disciplined ranks of rifles, but the real difference is that it is told in the first person. This means that the narrative is unreliable, opinionated, and humorous, and it also means that the reader never quite knows how close the author’s sympathies are to his narrator. When Uhtred is brutish (he tortures and then hangs his captives) are we supposed to love him for that? When he goes out of his way to taunt an unfortunate enemy, do we empathise or draw back? It is a very successful device, bringing us the ‘shock’ of the alien mindset, but also making us feel it. It allows Cornwell a bit of fun at his readers’ expense too: when characters destroy manuscripts or artefacts, or dig up archaeological sites, we know that we’re being manipulated for the shudder!

I like Uhtred best of all Cornwell’s characters, but is this his best outing? Perhaps not. The tale has bite, twists, and a good shape, but I was more engaged with Uhtred’s wyrd in the earlier books. That said, I’ll still be reading the next one.