The Empty Throne
© 2015 Bernard Cornwell
Uhtred of Bebbanburg is an impossible man. A Saxon prince raised by Danes, he has nonethelessbeen the architect of a great redoubt against them, the defender of Wessex a hundred times over. A lone wolf in a court of civilized dogs, Uhtred is despised by the court, but admired by its warriors. In his life, Uhtred has wrestled victory from the jaws of ruin a dozen times; he has presided over the ruin of armies that threatened devestation. In a country increasing ruled by religion and law, Uhtred is a pagan; he is primal, a man loyal to blood and oaths, a man who lives life lustily. Time and again, Uhtred’s irrational allegiances to people have gotten him into trouble, but they have led him to greatness. Now,after a life of strife, of love and war, he is aged, battle-worn, and sick — but fate tasks him still.
The Empty Throne sees Uhtred struggling valiantly to defend his friends and innocents yet again, fighting not only against the energetic scheming of men now far younger than him, but against his own mortality. His body carries many wounds, some fresh, and one which refuses to hill. But the chief of Mercia has just died, and if the schemers get their way the kingdom could fall into Danish hands, and a woman Uhtred loves (always the women with Uhtred and Sharpe!) relegated to a fate worse than death: a nunnery. So he and his own must gird themselves up one more time and fight the good fight — scheming, fighting, sailing — even if it takes them into the great unknown: Wales.
The battles in Empty Throne are more like brawls, much smaller in scale (aside from a fleet being set on fire); the book is a prelude to the great climax of the Saxon-Norse struggles. What volume follows this will presumably see the end of Uhtred’s career, too, given the many premonitions of death featured here, from Uhtred’s son becoming a narrator to visions of long-dispatched foes and friends inviting Uhtred to dine with them in the beyond. Unlike Uhtred, Cornwell’s skills haven’t diminished in writing: his flair for the dramatic seems especially pronounced in these Saxon books, perhaps given the cultures’ devotion to oratory, or the sheer fun of writing Vikings. Uhred spends most of this book wearily trying to sort schemes while fighting pain, but even so there’s humor — witness his schooling his son in the fine art of backhanding priests. (Uhtred has bearishly swatted clerics in virtually every book of this series; surely Cornwell’s made a running joke out of it.) Despite the contemplation of death, there is the promise of life: not only does his daughter Stiorra has a will of iron, like the blade she uses to dispatch a would-be assailant, but like her father she has embraced the old ways of heathenry. She’s a genuine shield-maiden, and I hope she appears in the finale.) Even once he goes to rest his bones in the hollowed ground of his forefathers (as yet unrecaptured), that spirit of Uhtred, that fierce strength, that awesome wildness — will live on.
[2015 Reading Challenge: A Book Published This Year COMPLETED 1/52]