The flame bearer by Bernard Cornwell

The relative peace between Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria makes that Uhtred sets his hopes on reconquering his family castle of Bebbanburg. But the cunning King Constantin of Scotland forces him south, where lord Aethelhelm tries to persuade Uhtred’s son-in-law Sigtryggr to a fight.

This is the 10th book in the series and we are nearing the end (only three more to go after this one). Uhtred finally begins his lifelong quest to conquer Bebbanburg since Aethelflaed and Sigtryggr have signed a peace treaty that also king Edward of Wessex is willing to respect.

The previous book in the series ‘Warriors of the storm‘ killed off some of Uhtred’s bitter enemies. So ‘The flame bearer‘ introduces us to a few new characters and foes. Such as Lord Aethelhelm, who we already knew from the previous books but now takes a stand against Uhtred to support his grandson Aethelweard’s claim against that of Aethelstan. There’s also the Scottish king Constantin of whom we’ll see more in the next books I hope. And then there’s the mad and cunning bishop Ieremias. He was a Dane before he started to believe in Christian miracles and now wants to take hold of the holy island of Lindisfarne to build a church for -the nailed- God. A character only Cornwell can come up with.

This is one of the best books in the series because it’s full of intrigue and cunning tactics. And the book ends of course with a phenomenal battle scene on the walls of Bebbanburg (better known as Bamburgh Castle). This means that there’s less time for character development, but you can’t have everything. And ‘The flame bearer’ certainly has enough allure and offers pure entertainment. Up to the next one.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Have you read these books or seen the television series?


Warriors of the storm by Bernard Cornwell

In the middle of the night thousands of Danes land in the north of Mercia uniting under their new ‘king’ Ragnall Ivarsson, brother to Uhtred’s son-in-law. It’s still unclear if Ragnall wants to overthrow the lady of Mercia Aethelflaed or whether his eye wanders towards Northumbria. In the meantime, Uhtred’s daughter Stiorra is being besieged in Ireland. Uhtred now has to choose between his love for his daughter and his oath as a warrior to Aethelflaed.

This is already the ninth installment in the Saxon series and we meet a much older battle-hardened Uhtred now. The previous book, the empty throne, ended with a sudden surprise for me, so I was curious to see how the story would continue. What I liked about this book is that it offers a great balance between some terrific battle scenes and the rest of the story. Uhtred is always busy in this novel and I in particular liked his small adventure into Ireland. We also finally get an insight into Finan’s past. He’s by far my favorite side character.

Although this certainly can be read as a stand-alone as the story offers a lot of closure at the end (no big cliffhanger this time), I do believe you’ll enjoy it more when you’ve read all the books in the series. There are some characters from Uhtred’s past popping up and we do say goodbye to some of them (which was a bit of a surprise for me but it promises some new characters in the next books).

Another aspect I enjoyed is Uhtred’s relationship with his children which is a big part of the story. As is the constant strive between the Christian God and the old Gods of the Danes. In that regard, I was a bit disappointed by the fast end of the storyline in Mercia. I had hoped father Leofstan would become a bigger part of the story. I also guessed the truth around Mus, but she was a great addition to the cast nonetheless. It made the final battle actually quite funny. Nobody can write that kind of scene as good as Cornwell.

Warriors of the storm was another great read. In the next book, the flame bearer, Uhtred will return to Bebbanburg and yes, aren’t we all looking forward to that?

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A time for swords by Matthew Harffy

Hunlaf travels as a young monk to the minster of Lindisfarne with his teacher Leofstan only to witness the first Danish attack on the English coast. While the brethren are being slayed, Hunlaf discovers the warrior within him when he tries to defend two children together with Runolf, a big redheaded norseman. Hunlaf is convinced that God has sent Runolf to help them defend the other minsters on the English coast from the next attacks. They recruit their own war band and prepare for a bloody battle to defend everything they hold dear.

I’m always in for a bloody viking story. Although I prefer to use the more historical correct term ‘Danes’ when England is involved. I hadn’t read anything by Harffy before and his writing certainly didn’t put me off.

The story isn’t new and full of clichés that you’ve read before. A monk turning into a warrior. A Dane and an Englishman joining forces to defeat the Danes. A group of outcasts preparing to defend a bunch of villagers. If you’re looking for an original story, you should look elsewhere.

I’m still happy that I’ve read ‘a time for swords‘. I loved the character building of the different fighters and their underlying relations. The battle scenes aren’t that great, but entertaining enough to read. Entertaining is the perfect word for this book. Don’t expect more than that.

The ending was fine and hints to a sequel. I must admit that I’m not inclined to read the next book as I wasn’t interested in ‘the romance’ part of the story. But I might try another of Harffy’s books some day.

Matthew Harffy is no Bernard Cornwell or Conn Iggulden. But if you’re looking for your next viking read when the world outside is still a mess, this might be your next go to.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for a copy of this book in return for my honest opinion.

Shadow on the crown by Patricia Bracewell

As sister to the Norman duke Richard, Emma gets betrothed to the English king Aethelred II. Aethelred has just lost his wife in childbed who gave him already three daughters and six sons. His marriage to Emma is a pure political one as her brother promises to help defend England against the Danes. But the allegiance comes with a prize: Emma gets a crown and the title Queen of England.

Soon Emma discovers she has few friends at court and her husband bears her no love. Aethelred is plagued by a childhood drama and mistrusts everyone, including his beautiful but Norman queen. It is clear Emma must look elsewhere for love, but at first she gets none from the king’s eldest three sons. As queen she, and any male issue she begets, becomes a rival for the throne should Aethelred die. Elgiva, the daughter of a northern lord, had herself the ambition to be queen and blames Emma for her destroyed hopes. Yet another face she cannot trust.

This book was my first ebook on Kindle ever. I don’t know exactly why I chose this particular one, I just wanted to read something about Saxon England. Emma of Normandy is a queen I didn’t know anything about, but her name is often mentioned in historical podcasts. So I thought I might give this book, which is the first part in a trilogy about her life, a try. And I’m so glad I did, because I love this book.

The novel is written in the third person narrative from four different perspectives: Emma (the main character), Aethelred, Aethelstan (the heir to the throne) and Elgiva. This was definitely a surprise, as I thought the story would mainly be about Emma. I always like to read from different perspectives and the fact that you also get an insight in the troubled king’s mind really contributed to the story. Aethelred was not my favorite character, but reading from his point of view made hem feel more human, although I didn’t agree with his choices.

I did like the perspectives of Aethelstan and Emma the most. I could feel Emma’s insecurities and fears of a king rejecting her love and even her existence at some times. She was quite alone, except for her Norman ladies, at a strange court. Stepmother to sons who are her age and who don’t want to see her pregnant because that child will become a competitor for the throne itself. And then you have Elgiva, a vain noble girl who loathes Emma and is used by her family to grab power. I hope that her story becomes more balanced in the coming novels.

The battle with the Danes and the massacre at St. Brice’s Day are key events in the story. The Danish treat comes from Swein Forkbeard and his son Cnut. I feel we will see more of them in the next books. I found them very interesting side characters.

Bracewell crafts a believable story, but it’s important to note that there aren’t many facts from Emma’s early years as queen to start from. Some chapters of the books start with an ancient text from the Anglo-saxon chronicle, which was always a nice introduction. But sources from that era are scarce.

The author takes some liberties and also adds a romance, but it didn’t bother me at all. Bracewell even includes quite ‘modern’ themes such as panic attacks and claustrophobia. I liked her writing style, I loved the different characters (apart from Elgiva) and I look forward to reading the next part. I want to discover more of Emma’s life.

As this is Bracewell’s debut novel, I’m even more impressed. Highly recommended!

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The empty throne by Bernard Cornwell

Lord Aethelred, the ruler of Mercia, is dying. Leaving no heir to the already weakened kingdom. King Edward of Wessex and his father-in-law, the cunning Aethelhelm, desire to fulfill Alfred’s dream of a united England, while his sister Athelflaed is fighting the Danes in the northern part of the realm. As Aethelred’s widow, both Edward and the Mercian lords would see her retire to a nunnery. Meanwhile, her warrior and lover, Uhtred of Bebbanburg, is still recovering from wounds inflicted by Cnut’s sword. Who will lay claim to the empty throne?

If you would’ve told me a few years ago that one of my favorite book series would be about bloody battles between the English and the Danes, I’d not have believed you. And I admit that it was only after watching the first season of the BBC-series The Last Kingdom that I found my way to Cornwell’s epic tale about Uhtred, a christian war lord raised by Danes.

The empty throne is the 8th installment in the Saxon series, currently used to shoot season 5. But I loved it again every bit. Yes Cornwell uses the same recipe, but it’s a proven one. And he dares to surprise you, as he does with the prologue in this book.

Uhtred is no longer young and weakened after the last epic battle at the end of The pagan lord. A new generation of ambitious man preys on his postion as Aethelflaed advisor and war lord. And his children will play their part. But as you could expect, Uhtred may not be as sickly as they think.

This may not be my favorite part from the series, as it is less action-packed. It lacks a grand battle finale. But the political schemes about the succesion of Mercia are intriguing, as is Uhtred’s excursion to Wales to find a sword—what else? And the ending might still surprise you. It certainly did surprise me. Uhtred is not out of trouble yet… I’m looking forward to read Warriors of the storm very soon!

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Did you read any of the Saxon series? Or do have you some recommendation about the viking era?