Book Review: Death of Kings by Bernard Cornwell

Looking back through my reviews, I realised it had been several years since I read the last Saxon Story by Cornwell so I thought I probably ought to get on with the next one!

Uhtred is in Mercia, he still doesn’t have his castle of Bebbanburg (Bamburgh) after attempting to seize it back from his duplicitous uncle. The fragile peace between the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and the Vikings who live beyond the Danelaw is holding – but only just. South of the border, both Wessex and Mercia prepare for a war that is inevitable yet rumours about that the sickly King Alfred is on his deathbed. Can the fragile alliance and the expected unity of the two crowns go ahead?

Alfred does indeed die halfway through the book, effectively passing the mantle to his heirs in both Wessex (Edward) and in Mercia where his daughter (Aethelflaed) is about to make history as a queen consort, feared leader in her own right, and then as a single ruler when her husband dies; she about to become one of the most important yet tragically unrecognised women in England’s history.

After thoroughly enjoying the previous book and seeing it getting back to the roots of being Uhtred’s story, I had high expectations for this, the sixth book in the series. Tied to a failing estate in Mercia, possibly with a view to being on the front-line if/when the Danes attack upon hearing of the death of Alfred, so that he can be at his friend Aethelflaed’s side, Uhtred grumbles about continually being pushed around. But first, he must rescue Aethelflaed when she is abducted at her father’s funeral.

There are plots within plots once again and you’re never really sure quite who to trust – elements in the Wessex and Centish courts conspire to snatch control from Edward. Yes, there are battles, political intrigue and some fascinating insights into some real historical characters – and it seems the world and his dog now want Uhtred dead. With Alfred dead, what held together the Saxon kingdoms is about to become slightly less stable. There is no truly fleshed-out villain either, just a succession of people who want to kill Uhtred. Skade from the last book was so animated that he drove a big part of the plot.

I was led to believe that this would be the penultimate book in the series; I know there is one more published after this one so far, but after looking on Cornwell’s website, he states that he “doesn’t know how many more there will be”. I found this book a little bit of a disappointment on reflection. I really don’t see there is much else left in the story now with Alfred dead except for Uhtred to reclaim Bebbanburg. I hope he is giving serious thought to how much longer this series can go on, because although the dynamic of his relationship with the new king, and of his relationship with Aethelflaed has given it new life, I am starting to feel that it the series being dragged out for the sake of it – I hope this is not the case.

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