© 2020 Bernard Cornwell
As a boy, Uhtred saw his father and brother slain by an invading enemy, an enemy who took his home from him. Unwilling to turn and run, the boy Uhtred attacked these ferocious warlords from the sea on his own, and amused by his audacity, they adopted him as their own. A Saxon prince raised by the Norse, Uhtred has always struggled with loyalties, forever balancing them and choosing whatever course took him closer to reclaiming his family home. Now, having retaken his fortress by the sea, Uhtred must defend it one last time. The kings of Britain are circling one another for war, and Bebbanburg is in the middle. War Lord offers a satisfying finale to the Saxon Chronicles series, culminating in one of the most impactful batttles in British history — though one few have ever heard of. (Google “Brunanburh” if you wish, but it may spoil part of the novel’s endgame for you.)
Uhtred of Bebbanburg has served the king of England most of his life, however unwillingly; he was with Alfred when England was only a dream, and that great king was a deposed royal hiding from the Norse in the marshlands. He protected Alfred and helped him forge a kingdom, and Uhtred raised his heir Aethelstan to become a powerful force in his own right. But Aethelstan isn’t satisfied with being king of England: he regards himself as King of All Britain, and is embarrassed to owe so much to an old pagan who has little regard for pompous churchmen and the useless, vain courtiers who surround Aethelstan. Rumors float of a northern alliance between the Scots, the Norse factions, and a potentially rebellious Northumbria, and Uhtred is caught between ambitious predators who want to use and discard him. Uhtred is an old man, valuable to them only as far as his men and castle go. Old and weary he may be, Uhtred still has his wiles — and playing king against king, he will forge his own path to keep Bebbanburg free.
Previous novels in the series have had more plot twists and more pitched battles, but in War Lord the stakes are as high as they get: not only do three kings in Britain want Bebbanburg for themselves, to assist in the inevitable epic battle between the northern alliance and Wessex/England, but even those who Uhtred has trusted previously are willing to betray him to get it — and this being the final novel, there’s really no telling what Uhtred’s fate might be. Will he die in battle, making a heroic sacrifice? Will he fall in the gates of his castle, defiant to the last, wielding his bloody sword Serpent-Breath? Or will he perish alone, betrayed and in enemy hands like Ragnar Lothbrok? I just didn’t know what to expect, either from that or from the other characters in the novel: by all rights Aethelstan should regard Uhtred with fililal affection, but he’s blinded by his own arrogance and fear of the Scots.
This being the thirteenth book in this series, there’s little I can say about Cornwell’s style that I’ve not said already: he is consistent in his strengths. Uhtred is still a lovable old grump with a mean backhand, and while he’s lost his strength he still has his wits — both in conversation and in combat — and those are well on display here. Cornwell’s gift for description that sucks the reader in, and his flair for dramatic oratory, used so well with Vikings as the subject, is present as well. I anticipated how the final battle would go, possibly because I’ve been reading Uhtred for ten years, but that didn’t make it any less engaging to read about.
Fare thee well, Uhtred; it’s been a great ride. I’ll be posting a series index soon after this for anyone who is interested in reading more about the series.