Publisher: Harper Collins
Publication Date – 24 September 2018
Uhtred of Bebbanburg returns in another rich historical adventure set in the heart of post-Roman Britain in this incredible and first-rate story from historical fiction legend Bernard Cornwell.
In the early 10th century, after many years of trials and tribulations, Uhtred has at last achieved his lifelong goal of reclaiming his ancestral fortress of Bebbanburg. Finally able to claim his independence from Wessex and the Saxon Christians who have always treated him with scorn and hostility for his pagan beliefs, Uhtred seeks to move away from the politics, battles and backstabbing that has been his life for so long. However, his new peaceful life is about to be interrupted by the interventions of enemies new and old.
In the outside world, King Edward of Wessex has made his move on the kingdom of Mercia, and has finally achieved his father’s dream of uniting the Christian kingdoms of Britain into one nation. The only remaining country outside of his control is the Kingdom of Northumbria, ruled by Uhtred’s son in law, Sigtryggr. These events have led to dangerous changes and new alliances for the remaining factions living outside of Edward’s control.
When a mysterious priest sends Uhtred on a mission to save Edward’s maligned firstborn son and Uhtred’s former ward, Æthelstan, from a Mercian siege, he finds himself outmanoeuvred by a new army of Danes who have come to claim Northumbria for themselves. Faced with great loss, Uhtred finds himself in a brutal fight against an opponent who seems to have mystical powers at his command. At the same time, the politics of the Wessex court threaten to start a war on another front, as the various contenders for the fading Edward’s throne seek to gain position, and many of the potential heirs want Uhtred dead. With enemies all around and not enough men at his back, the odds look grim for Uhtred. But, despite years of brutal battles and the ravages of age, Uhtred is still the most feared warrior in all of Britain, and he’s about to show everyone why he is always a force to be reckoned with.
War of the Wolf is the 11th book in The Last Kingdom series of historical fiction books from Bernard Cornwell. To my mind, Bernard Cornwell has to be considered one of the greatest authors of historical fiction in the world today, both in the quantity of books he has written and the quality of their content. Cornwell has been writing since 1981 and has produced more than 55 novels in his career, the vast majority of which are either set in England or focus on English characters out in the world. The sheer scope of Cornwell’s work is incredible, as he has covered vast tracts of world history, including several more obscure eras not regularly covered by other historical fiction authors. He is possibly best known for his long-running Richard Sharpe series, which followed the adventures of a British soldier and commander during and around the time of the Napoleonic Wars. The Richard Sharpe series featured 24 books and was adapted into the British television series, Sharpe, featuring Sean Bean as the titular character. Other series that Cornwell has published include the American Civil War series The Starbuck Chronicles, the Arthurian legends series The Warlord Chronicles and the Grail Quest novels, which are set during the early years of the Hundred Years’ War. Cornwell has also produced a number of standalone novels, including several sailing based modern thrillers and a number of intriguing individual historical novels. These standalone novels cover a huge range of different topics, from the prehistoric English story in Stonehenge, to the war novel Azincourt, the excellent examination of one of the more interesting battles of the American Revolutionary War in The Fort and the thriller set among Shakespeare’s theatre company in Fools and Mortals, which I have previously reviewed here.
The Last Kingdom series, alternatively known as the Saxon Stories, the Saxon Tales, the Warrior Chronicles or the Saxon Chronicles, started in 2004 and is Cornwell’s second–longest-running series, with 11 books currently written, and more set for the future. The Last Kingdom series is the second of Cornwell’s series to be adapted for television, with a third season of The Last Kingdom television just starting yesterday. I have always been a massive fan of this series, especially as one of the books in the series, Sword Song, was one of the first pieces of historical fiction I ever read and which helped get me into the genre. This is a fantastic series, as each of the books contains an electrifying adventure set during a period of history often overlooked or underutilised by other historical fiction authors. I have routinely reviewed several books in this series over the years, many of which will appear in future additions of my Throwback Thursday series of reviews.
War of the Wolf is another incredible outing from Cornwell that once again focuses on the life of his grizzled and battle-tested protagonist, Uhtred of Bebbanburg. Uhtred is a superb series protagonist who has witnessed the changing political and religious landscape of this period of post-Roman Britain. Originally a Christian Saxon, he is captured by pagan Danes as a child after the death of his father and the theft of his Uhtred’s ancestral fortress of Bebbanburg (modern day Bamburgh Castle in Northeast England) by his uncle. Raised by the Danes, Uhtred gains an appreciation for their culture and even starts practicing their religion. Uhtred is eventually forced into the service of the last remaining Christian kingdom of Wessex and its pious King Alfred (Alfred the Great). Even with several falling outs between the two, Uhtred serves Alfred and his family for many years as his most ferocious warrior and war leader, participating in several of the defining battles of the era. Throughout the series, Uhtred is constantly torn between the Christian Saxons and the invading pagan Danes. Despite being born as a Christian in a formerly Christian kingdom, Uhtred finds more in common with the Danes after being raised by one of their noble families and taking on their religion. While he’d rather fight alongside the Danes, circumstances force Uhtred to swear oaths of loyalty to various Saxon kings, especially Alfred, despite the hatred and disdain they show towards him for retaining his pagan faith. These dual loyalties are a key part of the character, and often result in much internal and external conflict for Uhtred and form the basis of a number of excellent storylines. Cornwell uses the character of Uhtred extremely well to highlight the differences between the Danes and the Saxons, as well as the importance of religion to these warring groups, especially when it comes to the somewhat insidious spread of Christianity to the Danes.
These storylines continue in War of the Wolf, as one of Uhtred’s oaths sends him into battle once again. This sets up the main story of the new book perfectly, as Uhtred is forced to deal with the politics and betrayals of the Saxons, while also fighting against a dangerous pagan opponent. I liked how Cornwell has continued to focus on Uhtred’s ties to the warring factions of Britain, and his attempts to reconcile his loyalties with his sense of honour and right and wrong. I also really enjoyed the way that Cornwell has aged up his protagonists throughout the series. Many authors will try to fit a number of adventures in to a short period of time in order to keep their protagonists in the same age range. Cornwell, who has based many of the key occurrences of his books on real-life historical events, has instead chosen to age up his protagonist as he outlives several historical figures. As a result, in War of the Wolf, Uhtred is no longer the young warrior he was at the start of the series, but is now an old sword in his 60s. This is an intriguing narrative element from Cornwell, who has been slowly building up to this over the last few books in the series. Not only has Cornwell been slowly ageing him but he’s been making him a more canny and crafty individual, able to rely on his brains and experiences more than his sword arm, although he still finds himself in the middle of every battle. In the latest book, this leads Uhtred to think more about the future of the people he cares about than his own future, as he realises he is getting closer to death. This is another fantastic outing featuring one of Cornwell’s best protagonists, and I am excited to see that he has left the series open for several additional stories in the future.
One of the more interesting parts of The Last Kingdom series is Cornwell’s outstanding research and his focus on historical details and events that are often not part of the public consciousness. I can think of no better way to highlight this then to mention that while I was doing a post-Roman Britain archaeology course at university, my lecturer actually included several books from The Last Kingdom series on his suggested reading list among the usual textbooks and scholarly articles. The previous books have all featured major battles or political events that helped decide the future of England, and his fictional point-of-view character often finds himself discussing the events with significant historical figures. Smaller details, such as the traditional names and spellings of historical people and places, give all of these books an incredibly authentic feel and really make the reader think they are back in this time period. As a result, these books are extremely intriguing for those fans of history and I cannot speak highly enough of the level of historical detail or insight Cornwell shows in his work. Cornwell continues his trend of interesting historical features in War of the Wolf, as he examines several key events during this period. This includes the annexation of the Kingdom of Mercia by King Edward of Wessex following the death of his sister Æthelflæd, the Queen of Mercia, and the subsequent rebellion by the Mercians. There is also focus on the submission of King Sigtryggr of Northumbria to King Edward, and focuses on the events that led up to it. Uhtred also finds himself embroiled in the politics around who would rule Sussex following the future death of Edward. All of this is incredibly fascinating and form an amazing background for the rest of the book’s story.
Intense action sequences have always been a major part of this series, with the large-scale fight scenes between the various warring factions battling around the British countryside. Cornwell does an excellent job replicating the battle tactics and techniques of the Saxons and the Danes, especially the standard technique of the shield wall, where the two opposing sides line up their shields and advance at each other. The battles are always incredibly detailed and pull no punches when it comes to the gruesome realities of war and combat. War of the Wolf in particular has quite a few great battle sequences, including one extended siege sequence towards the end of the book at an old Roman fort. I also loved the inclusion of the úlfhéðnar, the fabled wolf berserkers, who become a major part of the story, as Uhtred and his soldiers must find a way to overcome these dangerous opponents. It was quite interesting to see how these sorts of legendary historical fighters would actually fare in battle, and the author presents both the advantages and disadvantages of using them. Special mention should also be given to the dual between the two opposing ‘sorcerers’ during the climactic battle that was extremely entertaining and one of the more amusing parts of the entire book.
Cornwell has once again delivered a five-star classic piece of historical fiction with the latest book in his bestselling The Last Kingdom series. Filled with fantastic action, amazing historical context and focusing on a well-established and amazingly fleshed and complex protagonist, War of the Wolf is an incredible read that comes highly recommended. Even after 11 books, this is still one of my favourite series and I’m very excited to get the next edition.