Sword of Kings by Bernard Cornwell
Writing a review of any new Bernard Cornwell book is, for me, a tricky thing. Being asked to write one for Harper Collins’ blog tour for the 12th Uthred novel, Sword of Kings, is even more tricky. I mean, if I don’t like it, will they send me the next one? Seriously though, I owe Bernard Cornwell a huge debt. It was his Sharpe books that awakened my love of reading and also his fault I buy books at a rate that drives my wife to distraction. So it is was no little pleasure that Uthred returns once more.
Uthred’s tale should really be over. Bebbanburg is his, his son defends his lands and he has outlived most of his contemporaries and enemies. And yet, his past refuses to let him go. Uthred’s life has been the result of the oaths he has taken, some willingly, others out of lust and most made at the point of a sword. Sword of Kings finds Uthred’s final oath coming home to roost. This latest tale opens with shipping off Bebbanburg being brutally attacked to provoke Uthred. Uthred knows he is being provoked. His right hand, Finnan, knows it too, as does his lover, Edith. But Uthred takes his ship to sea and confronts his new enemy, a hulk of a warrior named Waormund. Through this engagement, he confirms that it is Æthelhelm the Younger who is goading him and the time to repay his oath to Æthelstan has arrived.
Uthred’s journey takes him south into the budding conflict that will erupt once King Edward dies. It is a call from Edward’s latest wife, Eadgifu, that spurs the goaded Uthred south. His plan is to help a potential rising in Kent against Æthelhelm and Æthelstan’s younger brother, Ælfweard, the two men Uthred has sworn to kill. As is the case with all Uthred’s plans, things go south pretty quick. Uthred and his men find themselves back in London, which Uthred captured for Alfred in Sword Song and governed in The Burning Land. London is in Æthelhelm’s hands and once again, Uthred will have to fight for the city only this time for Alfred’s grandson, the man with designs on Uthred’s homelands.
As Uthred is drawn into his past and his happiest times with the love of his life, Gisela, Uthred is fighting his past as much as his present. It is these little details that force Uthred to think about what it means to age. The burden of his past, his reputation as Uhtredærwe, ‘Uthred the Wicked’, goes out from him as both warning to those who confront him and as a curse for those who wish to gain reputation by killing him.
It is this device of Uthred returning to London that really made Sword of Kings stand up for me. Yes, all the of the usual hallmarks of a ripping Cornwellian yarn are in place. The banter with the Irish sidekick, the beautiful woman in Bernadetta, the troublesome yet surprisingly useful priest, the very welcome addition of Father Odda, and brutal, un-aggrandised violence. With both author and his character now in their elder years, I found this latest chapter in Uthred’s life to be the most reflective and, in places, rather meditative on what it means to age. Uthred is shackled not only by his oaths but by his reputation as the ‘Sword of Kings’. But when the ‘Sword of Kings’ loses his sword, what becomes of him. Cornwell deftly plays with his character's emotions and uses the first-person narrative to its reflective fore. Here it feels that time is catching up with the hero and, to a degree perhaps, the author.
With Uthred’s story coming to a close over the next few books and Cornwell himself now eased back to one novel a year, it is only to be expected that after 38 years of writing, retrospection will feature heavily in these tales. Having grown up with Sharpe, Starbuck, Derfel, Thomas of Hookton, Rider Sandman and Uthred, it is a joy to spend time with these characters. Sword of Kings feels very much like the beginning of the end of Uthred journey and Cornwell has given us a roaring tale with much to ponder as we age along with our heroes.
Sword of Kings by Bernard Cornwell is published by Harper Collins (who kindly provided this review copy) is out now.