Warriors are sentimental. My men knew the story, yet they sat transfixed by its long telling, and there were tears when the end came.
The narrator of Bernard Cornwell’s War Lord, Uhtred of Bebbanburg, is talking here about his soldiers sitting around listening to a retelling of the Beowulf story, and still enjoying the tale despite knowing full well what the end will be. But he could be talking about his own story too, a sly nod to the readers who have stuck with him for 13 volumes of The Last Kingdom series.
War Lord is the final triumphant book in the series and it isn’t a spoiler to say that Uhtred ends it sitting victorious in his beloved castle of Bebbanburg. Since the very first novel, we have known that he would live to the close; he is an old man from that first moment, narrating the story of his life. So in a very real way, we readers are like Uhtred’s men; we know what is coming, but we are transfixed anyway. Cornwell’s strength as an author is building a world so realistic, and characters so real, that even armed with the knowledge we have, the suspense never really goes away.
And there are surprises in this last book too – a reconciliation and a tragedy in quick succession, swift and cruel and completely necessary. Cornwell kept a few secrets up his sleeve.
War Lord concerns the build up to the Battle of Brunanburh in 937AD, and of course the battle itself. Brunanburh was a battle that was for many generations after called The Great Battle, until memory faded and until very recently, historians haven’t even been sure where the battle actually took place. What is fascinating about the Brunanburh is that the battle really defined the countries that still exist today: England, Scotland and Wales. It is an incredibly important piece of history that was all but forgotten. Cornwell has always been leading up to Brunanburh with his Uhtred story; from the very first mentions of a united England made by King Alfred back in the earliest books, it was always going to come to this.
War Lord is, of all 13 volumes, the most heavy on the battle content; much of the plot involves getting all of the pieces into place for Brunanburh, and admittedly that can weigh quite heavily at times. There have always been a lot of names in the series, but this time round there felt like even more who were key to have a handle on. All of this came at the expense of some of the character moments that have really defined Uhtred and his companions. The moments we do see –such as Uhtred and his ever faithful Finan discussing old age or Uhtred’s defence of his little ward –are great, and I wish there could have been more of them. Uhtred hasn’t gone soft in his old age, but he has softened, and if War Lord is lacking one thing, it’s a bit more of the personal.
But, as many of the characters often say, ‘Fate is inexorable.’ Those words, translated from an Old English poem, The Wanderer, have served as an epitaph for the series, and they are more relevant in War Lord than ever. Brunanburh has always been the destination and it is finally time to make good on that promise.
Cornwell’s grasp of the history, and the way he blends it into his novels, has always been his strength. The period of time that this series covers, with War Lord ending in 938, is one that is neglected in British history lessons, and by creators in general. Schools would have you believe that the Romans left and then nothing happened in the vast expanse of time before William the Conqueror turned up in 1066. What books like War Lord, and authors like Cornwell do, is show us that there is a lot we don’t know.
And we should know it; it feels oddly apt that I should be reading a book about the formation of the nations of the British Isles at the same time I am listening to the discussion of the way that England, Scotland and Wales are taking vastly different approaches to the handling of the coronavirus, or how there is a debate over the north and south divide in England. Boris Johnson versus Andy Burnham happens in this book, with King Æthelstan in the south and Lord Uhtred in the north clashing over the best way to protect the land and the people. History always finds a way to repeat itself.
War Lord is a book about a battle that happened over a thousand years ago, written by someone who probably committed it to paper at least a year ago, long before the current crisis, but it feels like it is about right now. And that is probably the thing that historical fiction should give us more than anything else; a lens through which to examine who we are, right now.
Review copy provided.
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