The sixth entry in Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Chronicles series, “Death of Kings” marks a transition: in it, one main, focal character, King Alfred the Great, dies, and his son Edward succeeds him. Alfred has struggled all his life to unite the Anglo Saxons of the British Island under him, but although he approached it, he did not quite achieve it in his lifetime.
The Saxon Chronicles is a favorite of mine, illuminating in a series of novels a remote moment in time, centrally important to all Anglophones: the unification of Anglo Saxon England and the expulsion from Britain of the Danes, or at least the assimilation of the Danes under English law. They’re told from the point of view of Uhtred, a Saxon warlord who is sworn in service to the Saxon throne. He isn’t always happy in that service, but who can say that they are, in every particular of their service?
“Death of Kings” marks not only Alfred’s passing, but also that of a handful of other kings and pretenders, all Danish, or allied to the Danish side. We know how the story goes, if we want to, but Mr. Cornwell’s grand success is the vivid telling, and the filling-in of fuzzy (or missing) historical detail with well-imagined and logical characters and events. I like this series because it features an extremely tough and clever general, who gets scared on the eve of battle, fierce as it rages, and never compromises with what he considers as the overweening influence of the Church. He remains pagan – he was brought up in the Danish culture – and this leads to tension throughout the story. Royal advisers don’t trust him, but at least Alfred, and maybe his son Edward, know better.
These novels have everything I could want in a historical series: they portray an epochal time, in which great stakes hang in the balance, their pacing keeps us furiously turning pages, and it transports me to an exotic time with larger-than-life events. It’s hard to imagine better escapist fare, and hard to imagine anyone handling it better than Mr. Cornwell.