War of the Wolf
pub. 2018 Bernard Cornwell
Uhtred of Bebbanburg is called a priest-killer, a chief of devils. And yet when a distressed and scarred monk came to his gates and begged that he send help to Mercia, beset by civil war, the old warlord answered the call. He once swore to protect a young man, then the son of his beloved friend Aetheflaed, Queen of Mercia. That young man is now an accomplished young prince, one of such potential that he might help realize King Alfred’s dream: one England, with one law, and one God. That is a future Uhtred does not want, for his own home is in the last pagan kingdom, Northumbria — the last to resist Edward, Anglorum Saxonum Rex. And yet Uhtred is a man of oaths, and so true to his word he rides forth to rescue a man who one day by be his undoing. When he arrives, however, he finds that the man, though besieged by rebels, is in no dire straights, and the monk who begged for his help is not what he seemed. Someone has lured Uhtred of Bebbanberg from his forbidding castle, but for what reason? Although his pursuit of developments gives him greater reason to fear for the future than ever — Edward is plainly dying, and his sons are all ambitious men who want to prove and engorge themselves by attacking Northumbria — that kingdom has a more pressing enemy, one who has already manipulated Uhtred and whose sorcerer draws men to his banner even as it frightensthose he stands against. Though Uhtred can resist him with wiles and might, as he has taken countless enemies before, the aging war-prince also knows that fate is inexorable. He can foil men, but not the gods.
The Saxon Stories are probably my favorite series of historical fiction to read, although after the first half-dozen the plots have gotten a little tiresome: medieval Saxon politics punctuated with epic battles. It’s great, but…people being as they are, even a diet of constant steak would grow tiresome. In War of the Wolf, we appear to be approaching the endgame, as the poet who appeared early in the series putting Uhtred’s life into verse appears here again, complete with some borrowed Saxon poetry. Although Uhtred has an immediate enemy — a young savage with a ferocious warband and a lust for power — the political developments of this book also hint that the ‘final battle’ will be the defense of Northumbria against the south. What made Uhtred so interesting from the start was that he was a Saxon princeling raised by the Danes, who much preferred the company of the latter but was compelled to fight against them to realize his dream of reclaiming his family land. Uhtred in his youth was constantly torn between his Christian countrymen of blood, and his Danish and Norse countrymen of heart. Old Uhtred has been a partially tamed wolf: one who is wild, but mostly cooperates with the king. If push comes to shove, however, and Christian England invades Northumbria, it’s almost certain that the wolf will run wild again.