The Empty Throne by Bernard Cornwell
Back in July, The BBC and Downton Abbey producers Carnival Films announced that they would be adapting Bernard Cornwell's The Saxon Stories/Warrior Chronicles. I was so delighted, I blogged about it here. Uhtred is one of Cornwell's characters that you can tell he loves, but that he has also struggled with. A couple of the middle books lacked his usual abandon, but this was due to him fighting and beating cancer at the time. It does help that Cornwell claims direct linage with Uhtred of Bebbanberg, so that keeps the series going. The latest in the story is The Empty Throne.
The eighth book in the series is opened by Uhtred Uhtredson, the son of Uhtred, who helpfully is also Uhtred Uhtredson. But the Uhtred (still with me?) is our hero Uthred's son. So our Uthred Uhtredson as opposed to the proper teller of our tale Uhtred of Bebbanburg. Ok, confusion over, we join Uhtred Uhtredson (our Uhtred's son, just to be clear) on an ambush of some Norse raiders lead by Hakki Grimmson. Cornwell has employed a first person narrative for this series, one he used to better effect in the Warlord Chronicles, but Uhtred is such an engaging, difficult hero that it grows on you. To open the book with the same device, but spoken by the son of our hero, is disconcerting and rather focusing. We hear that Uhtred is still recovering from the fight with Ubba at the end of the previous book, The Pagan Lord. Uhtred, our Uhtred, won that fight but at a cost that hampers him throughout The Empty Throne. The viewpoint returns to the father at the end of the prologue, but you do get the feeling that Cornwell is setting things up to continue this series after Uhtred regains Bebbanberg, his family seat at what is now Bamburgh Castle (the heating bills are immense, apparently). The injury is a nice plot device, forcing Uhtred to rely on his son and men more than he is, and we are, used too. Taking the hero out of his comfort zone is an old narrative trick, but Cornwell is a dab hand at old tricks and uses the wound to great affect. The story centres around the defense of Chester in 911 A.D. from Stitryggr Ivarson. Along the way though, our hero and the assorted rabble of warriors and formidable women he has collected, have to play their part in the ascension of the Lady of Mercia, visit Hywel the Good in Wales and generally do what all good Cornwell heroes do along the way, upset a whole heap of folk.
As I said before, The Saxon Stories/Warrior Chronicles have had their low points, but The Empty Throne is Bernard Cornwell back at what he does best, spinning a yarn that even though you know that our heroes survive, a draw back of the first person narrative device, you do constantly find yourself trying to figure out what will happen next. The Empty Throne has a few good twists along the way and the book clearly reads as a setup for what is coming in the next couple books, but handled by a master of Historical Fiction, I loved every page. The series is not without its faults, but when its good, its almost on a par with the best Cornwell has written. He has never again reached the heights of his truly remarkable retelling of the Arthurian saga in The Warlord Chronicles (The Winter King, Enemy of God and Excalibur), but he is clearing enjoying this series and long may it continue if he continues to produces ripping yarns like The Empty Throne.