“Because fate cannot be cheated, it governs us, and we are all its slaves.”
I’ve continued on my journey with Bernard Cornwell’s The Saxon Stories by reading Lords of the North. This will also be my first read for Alex’s (Spells and Spaceships) Norsevember event, which is taking place from now until the end of November, though the bulk will obviously take place then.
If you’re unfamiliar with The Saxon Stories, maybe you’ve heard of The Last Kingdom on Netflix. This is what that is based on. I didn’t do blog reviews for the first two installments (The Last Kingdom and The Pale Horsemen), although I loved them and rated them both 4 stars. Lords of the North is a 5 star read for me.
“And yet I knew it was not my fate to be king. I have known many kings and their lives are not all silver, feasting, and women…
I wanted the silver, the feasting, and the women, but those I could have without a throne.”
As with the first two books, we follow Uhtred, who was born a Saxon but raised a Dane. He continues to straddle this line, affecting Dane mannerisms and beliefs while fighting for the Saxon cause under Alfred. Cornwell’s way if writing witty banter and humor that endears us to Uhtred. What I absolutely loved about this book is that we are finally introduced to Sihtric and Finan aka THE SQUAD. Uhtred is an amazing character because he inspires belief and loyalty from those around him. He is flawed and he is about his honor, but he is never intentionally cruel. He lives and dies by his oaths and does not make them lightly. This gets him into quite the conundrum now and again, as he’s often put into battle against people he cares about. He could rule if he wanted to, but he doesn’t. People seem to be blind to the fact that he doesn’t want to rule, so they are often wary of his charisma.
“Oaths can be broken,” he said quietly, and that was true, but in a world where different gods ruled and fate is known only to the three spinners, oaths are our one certainty. If I broke an oath then I could not expect men to keep their oaths to me. That I had learned.”
This installment had so much action, so much emotion, so much more depth. We are introduced to the slave king, Guthred, who is silly and boyish. I felt much more of a connection with him than I did in the show. He is very likeable and we get a good amount of time with him. Gisela is flawed in this book but Uhtred is drawn to her, nonetheless. Sihtric and Finan get more in-depth with their storylines and I loved reading about their roots. Finan is true and strong, always jesting, and his time with Uhtred makes him as loyal as they come. If you haven’t read this book or watched the show, I won’t ruin how they meet but though it is heart-aching, it plants that deep seed of friendship that cannot be broken. We get moments with Ragnar, Brida, and even Thyra, which speaking of heartache, Thyra’s storyline is the embodiment of that.
“Finan the Agile, he had been called, and I watched, astonished, as he leaped ahead of both Guthred and Rollo and took on the three men alone, and his two swords were as fast as a viper’s strike.”
Cornwell can pack a punch while keeping his books relatively short. He covers many events over a period of time, but it never feels rushed. There are moments without a lot of dialogue, but they always serve the plot. This is one of the finest works of historical fiction I’ve read. It almost feels like fantasy because of how outlandish some of these events read, but they are very true to life in that time. Uhtred may be fictional, but most of these characters are very real. He serves to bring together the storyline of the Danes and the Saxons, to get us in both of their mindsets. I love how he draws the juxtaposition of the Danes and Saxons when it comes to faith and honor. They both care about these things, but in different orders. The Danes are all about personal and familial honor, and they will dine in the halls of Valhalla by fighting, avenging themselves and their families. They pay homage to their Gods by living life for themselves and taking care of their family. The Saxons do everything to serve their God and their faith, and they expect everyone to serve God first. There were a few offhanded remarks about how the church takes money to serve God, and how they are willing to forgive things they normally condemn for a bit of silver. This book and series in general offers a lot of questions about faith and organized religion. The Danes worship in their own way compared to the organized fashion that The Saxons do, but is either wrong? They both kill, pillage, and wage war, but they do so under different premises. The Saxons do it to unite England under one God, and the Danes do it for honor, to make Odin proud. In actuality, they are pretty similar, though they don’t see it. The Saxons think they are civilized because they have faith in a Christian God, the Danes think they are civilized because they have faith in themselves. I also think it is funny that we often think of Danes or Vikings as barbaric, but they did things like bathe more often than the Saxons (who didn’t bathe often as they believed the cold water would kill them) because they were more in tune with the elements and how to survive. The Saxons are more reserved in their emotions where the Danes wear their emotions in their sleeves. Obviously, we see where history landed them both, but these novels show how easily we could have had a different way of life because of the fights of these two peoples. Everything could have been different if even one or two battles had gone differently.
“The other thing I like about our gods is that they are not obsessed with us. They have their own squabbles and love affairs and seem to ignore us much of the time, but the Christian god has nothing better to do than to make rules for us. He makes rules, more rules, prohibitions and commandments, and he needs hundreds of black-robed priests and monks to make sure we obey those laws. He strikes me as a very grumpy god, that one, even though his priests are forever claiming that he loves us. I have never been so stupid as to think that Thor or Odin or Hoder loved me, though I hope at times they have thought me worthy of them.”
This series is phenomenal and I highly recommend to anyone that likes historical fiction or fantasy. Though it isn’t fantasy, it has a lot of elements that make people love western fantasy specifically.
If you have any Norse inspired reads for Norsevember, let me know!