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The Pale Horseman    by Bernard Cornwell order for
Pale Horseman
by Bernard Cornwell
Order:  USA  Can
HarperCollins, 2006 (2006)
Hardcover, Audio, CD

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* *   Reviewed by Tim Davis

Travel back to the western territories of Saxon England in the late 9th century. This is the world of the legendary King Alfred the Great, the uncommonly pious Christian monarch who wages battles against the invading pagan Danes in hopes of solidifying his sovereignty over a besieged and divided England.

This is also the world of the brash young warrior and nobleman Uhtred of Bebbanburg. An orphaned son of a Northumbrian lord but raised by the Danish warlord Ragnar the Fearless, Uhtred is a fearless and impulsive twenty year old for whom 'Life is simple. Ale, women, sword, and reputation. Nothing else matters!'

The simplicity of Uhtred's life, however, is suddenly in jeopardy. He has killed one of the most notorious enemies of Alfred, the great Ubba Lothbrokson, and - of course - this heroic deed should have won considerable prestige and honor for Uhtred. But another warrior has claimed credit for dispatching Ubba to the dark underworld of the pagan Danes, and Uhtred - proud and boastful - commits an unlawful faux pas in the presence of King Alfred. When then forced to submit to a humiliating ordeal as a penance for his transgression, Uhtred becomes bitterly resentful and angry. Thereupon, he steals a small ship from the king's tiny but strategically critical fleet and embarks on an adventure of plundering, piracy, and lawlessness in defiance of King Alfred.

Soon, though, Uhtred's life becomes gloriously complicated: He meets Asser the duplicitous cleric who will profoundly affect Uhtred's future, and he becomes enamored with the fiercely beautiful Iseult, a regal woman who is able to see into the future; but most significantly, Uhtred - a man whose loyalties have for a long time been dangerously divided - discovers that he will have good reasons to give his considerable support as a warrior and friend to the increasingly imperiled Alfred.

The Pale Horseman, another in a long line of superb historical novels from the prolific Bernard Cornwell, is an entertaining story focusing on the conflicts between selfishness and unselfish commitment to causes. Uhtred's splendidly vivid tale is filled with wonderful details of the cultural, social, religious, and political dynamics of 9th century Britain - savage in its brutality and luminous in its optimism.

2nd Review by Alex Telander:

In this sequel to The Last Kingdom, Bernard Cornwell surges ahead with his series on the life of Alfred the Great - furthering the plot, and with clear development in story, characters, and message.

We now see the dark side of series protagonist, Uhtred of Bebbanburg. While skilled in languages, with words, and with his trusty sword Serpent-breath, he is actually not very likeable. He treats his pious wife (who wants him to be a good Christian) and child with disdain. He sets off on one of Alfred's ships, kills and steals, and kidnaps his very own pagan sorceress. I find it admirable that Cornwell made such a disreputable character of his protagonist. Ultimately this serves to make Uhtred more believable (which is perhaps a critique of some characters in Cornwell's other works).

The author magnificently captures the feel of the period. Here you have Saxons trying to defend their country (which they invaded just four hundred years before) against the Danes who all but succeed in their conquest of Britain. Cornwell tells us in his elucidating Author's Note that if it weren't for Alfred's decision, when all seemed lost, to still fight back (and win), that he would be telling this story in Danish. Whether a Saxon, a Dane, or a Briton, identity was something both questioned and sought after in this melting pot of a country - Uhtred is often thought a Dane or a Briton, but not a Saxon, which he considers himself.

At the end when all that remains of Saxon Britain is a small area of marsh in Wessex, Alfred unites his people - who end up banding together from all areas of the surrounding country - and defeats the Danes, making Wessex the one strong remaining Saxon enclave in all Britain. It was with this victory that Alfred earned the title great. The book ends with the hope that Alfred the Great will begin taking back the rest of Britain and pushing the Danes out for good.

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