Sword Song: The Battle for London
© 2008 Bernard Cornwell
When King Alfred assumed the throne of Wessex, his fragile nation stood alone against the rest of England, subdued and ruled by the Danes. Through Alfred’s able administration and his reliance on stout warriors like Uthred of Bebbanburg, Wessex has broken the back of most of the Scandinavian usurpers. Those who’ve not fallen by Uhtred’s sword have been turned into Alfred’s allies (if not completely reliable), and the pious king’s influence is expanding. Still, invaders keep coming — like Sigifred and Erik, two legendary Norse brothers who have invaded southern England fresh from profitable journeys among the Franks. They have seized Lundene (known better as London) and intend to conquer both Mercia and Wessex. Though Alfred’s forces are large enough to resist them successfully, he cannot allow the brothers to continue using Lundene to control the Thames river, Alfred’s greatest source of supplies and trade. Thus, Uhtred and a few other chosen men are tasked with leading an army to Lundene and restoring it to Saxon hands.
Uhtred is the most able of Alfred’s servants, but not his most-honored: unlike most Saxons, he has not abandoned the old gods for the Hebrews’, nor has his life made him a meek subordinate. Though Uhtred complies with Alfred’s wishes, he does so to fulfill a personal sense of honor — not because he likes or even respects the sickly would-be saint. He would rather burn in the Christian hell until the end of time than spend a moment with Alfred’s crowd of pious legalists. Thus, even though he follows Alfred’s orders, he does so in his own way — keeping his own counsel, often striking out on his own without Alfred’s sanction or even notice. Though the outcome of the book’s titular battle was a foregone conclusion, the execution is interesting and the aftermath unpredictable — giving Uhtred an opportunity to choose to defy Alfred’s plans in order to effect his own. Most of the book’s characters are old familiars, but the two Norse brothers were welcome arrivals; the younger, Erik, is a sympathetic a character as any.
In sum, Sword Song is yet another enjoyable volume in this series. I always enjoy stories of people who shun obedience and docility in favor of following their convictions, especially when they involve abusive priests and nobles stammering apologies as they back away from a gleaming sword held by the angry Lord of Bebbanburg.