Sometimes I read for knowledge or understanding, and sometimes I just read for pure fun. The sixth book in book in Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories, Death of Kings, is just plain fun.
The series is set in ninth and early tenth century Britain, at a time when the Danes (Norsemen) have invaded and occupied the central part of the island. The Saxon king, Alfred (the Great), is attempting to unite the other feuding parts of Britain to fight off the invaders and preserve Saxon Britain. The stories are told in the first person by Uhtred of Bebbanberg. Uhtred is a Saxon who was orphaned as a boy and was raised by a Danish family. So he has sympathies in both camps.
Uhtred is quite a character and it is his personal version of events that makes the stories so interesting. Uhtred is a sly, smart and very talented warrior. While serving a devoutly Christian king, Uhtred clings to the Norse gods, like Thor and Woden. He believes firmly in the “fates” who weave the outcome of human lives. Much of the first five books revolve around Uhtred’s hot-and-cold relationship with Kind Alfred. Alfred doesn’t approve of Uhtred’s pagan religion or his disrespectful attitude towards the Church and the West Saxon nobility, but he needs Uhtred’s sword and his leadership.
In Death of Kings, Alfred dies. Uhtred is caught up in the scheming and back-stabbing as the Saxons and Danes all use the death to advance their personal agendas for their own futures and the future of the island.
Cornwell is an excellent writer who does a great job putting the reader in the middle of the action.
My only complaint is that sometimes it was difficult to keep track of all the characters, many of whom have strange, but similar names. In this book alone, for instance, there was an Aethelred, Aethelflaed and Aethelwold, all of whom were important characters in the story. When I read the next book in the series, I think I’ll keep a slip of paper stuck between the pages and use it to jot down some of the names and their roles for later reference.
You can read Death of Kings as a stand-alone, but I would suggest you will enjoy it more if you go back and start the series with the first book, The Last Kingdom, and work forward from there.
One fair warning – While the books do not contain much sex, they are full of violence. And Cornwell does not pull any punches. If you are squeamish about reading about someone losing his head, you might not enjoy them as much as I did.