The Heathen Horde (Alfred the Great, 1)

Written by Steven A. McKay
Review by Fiona Alison

The novel opens in AD 868, some years after the murder of Ragnar Lodbrok, when his sons come to England to take revenge for their father’s death. They are followed by the sly Guthrum and the brutal Bagsecg. At first the novel felt somewhat tame, given that it is about marauding Viking warriors, but I very quickly became absorbed in McKay’s fascination with Alfred, the man. Young and inexperienced as he was when he became king, this first in a planned trilogy doesn’t touch on Alfred’s ideas to unite the kingdoms. Here, he is happy to kill the intruders, or pay them to go and raid someone else’s kingdom and leave Wessex alone. Guthrum in particular causes a litany of problems.

McKay’s first foray into fiction based on historical characters is an absorbing read. Rather than concentrate on the brutality of the raiders and the battles, we get a personal look at Alfred’s character, his piety, his belief that God was punishing him for youthful sins, his marriage, and his illness, which would have indicated weakness and caused dissention amongst his thanes. Many people know a few things about Alfred (later to be called ‘the Great’), but there is much of interest to be learned here, and as the author mentions, some of the events are more momentous than fiction could ever be! I could manage without the prologue, as it does nothing to advance a good story, which this is. The translation of place names would be preferable at the front of the book; a character list would be helpful with the abundance of ‘Ae’ names – Aethelred, Aethelflaed, Aethelwulf, et. al.; and a map would be welcome. So onward into the marshes to burn some cakes, and hope that Steven McKay finishes his next book soon.