Sword of Kings: A Novel (Saxon Tales)

Written by Bernard Cornwell
Review by Judith Starkston

In Sword of Kings, the twelfth book in Bernard Cornwell’s popular Saxon series, Uhtred of Bebbanburg has grown older and wiser, but, much to the reader’s delight, no less prone to put himself and his men into danger. Despite this being a longstanding series, Cornwell achieves satisfying freshness with Uhtred’s current inner conflict and failings.

The reader shares Uhtred’s frustration with the trap he’s gotten into. He swore an oath to his companion in arms, Aethelstan. Now that warrior vies for the throne that the dying Edward will soon leave open, and it’s time to fulfill his oath. The last thing Uhtred wants is involvement in Anglo-Saxon quarrels. His wife and closest friend tell him he’s a fool to go south to help Aethelstan. He agrees. But breaking an oath—that’s a heavy thing for a man following the Norse gods. In Uhtred style, he finds a clever way to uphold his oath that might not be fatal—until that plan goes awry. One unforeseen twisty disaster leads to another, keeping the reader highly engaged watching Uhtred’s brilliant strategic thinking in action.

Along with Cornwell’s rich character development and consummate battle scenes, he’s the master of cliff-hanger chapter endings. There’s this classic: “…I had no business here. The fool’s errand was over. Except it was not. Because the horsemen came.” There’s another subtler and more character-driven one: “And I knew then why he was familiar and why he hated me. And that made me laugh. We limped on home.” Of course, the reader doesn’t know what Uhtred does and is propelled off the cliff into the next chapter to find out. Cornwell’s well-honed talents make for an addictive book that brings old friends to the page with compelling new dimensions.