Quick Review – Crusader by Ben Kane

Crusader Cover

Publisher: Orion (Trade Paperback – 27 April 2021)

Series: Lionheart – Book Two

Length: 393 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Impressive historical fiction author Ben Kane returns with the second entry in his Lionheart series, Crusader, which does an amazing job of continuing the epic story of King Richard the Lionheart.

Synopsis:

KING. POLITICIAN. WARRIOR. CONQUEROR.

1189. Richard the Lionheart’s long-awaited goal comes true as he is crowned King of England. Setting his own kingdom in order, he prepares to embark on a gruelling crusade to reclaim Jerusalem.

With him on every step of the journey is Ferdia, his loyal Irish follower. Together they travel from southern France to Italy, to the kingdom of Sicily and beyond.

Finally poised to sail to the Holy Land, Richard finds a bitter two-year-long siege awaiting him. And with it, the iconic Saracen leader responsible for the loss of Jerusalem, Saladin.

No one can agree who should fill the empty throne of the Kingdom of Jerusalem and Saladin’s huge army shadows Richard’s every move. Conditions are brutal, the temperatures boiling, and on the dusty field of Arsuf, the Lionheart and his soldiers face their ultimate test…

Kane has produced another amazing novel in the Lionheart trilogy.  While Kane is best known for his incredible Roman historical novels, I have been particularly enjoying his compelling foray into medieval fiction with this outstanding series that examines the life of King Richard the Lionheart.  Told through the eyes of fictional character Ferdia, better known as Rufus, the first novel in this series, Lionheart, did a remarkable job of covering some of the most influential younger years of Richard’s life, which cumulated in him seizing the throne.  Crusader continues this epic retelling of Richard’s life by recounting the events that occurred as Richard led his forces on a bloody journey to the Holy Land.

Crusader contains a historically rich narrative that explores one of the most iconic periods of Richard’s life, the crusades.  Kane produces a very detailed story that focuses on the journey to the east as well as the battles in the Holy Land.  This includes the army’s stops in Sicily and Cyprus, where Richard was forced into conflict with other Christian rulers, before eventually arriving in the Holy Land and engaging in his legendary conflict with Saladin.  Kane attempts to cover every major battle of this Crusade, with several sieges, large-scale attacks, skirmishes and the infamous massacre at Acre.  At the same time, Rufus continues his deadly rivalry with the dishonourable knight Robert FitzAldelm, while also secretly engaging in a very risky romance.

This proves to be a very compelling story, and I very much enjoyed seeing this detailed portrayal of this legendary crusade.  Kane does a wonderful job of bringing all the dry historical facts to life throughout Crusader, and I found it fascinating to see his take on the entire journey and eventual battles with Saladin’s forces.  While the story does occasionally get a bit bogged down in medieval politics, royal disputes and petty squabbles, Kane keeps the novel going at decent pace, and the reader is treated to several epic and dangerous fight scenes.  The author can write a deeply impressive and thrilling battle sequence, and the reader is left on the edge of their seats multiple times, especially as the various characters you come to care about find themselves in utter peril.  I also enjoyed the bitter conflict that occurred between the non-fictional Rufus and his rival, FitzAldelm.  While not as prominent as in the first book, this rivalry is still a fantastic part of the book, especially as it adds an intrigue-laden edge to the main story.  While I really enjoyed this great novel, I do think that it suffered a little being the middle novel in the series, primarily because certain overarching conspiracies and plots are put on hold because of the crusade.  I also felt the first half of the novel was a little slow in places, especially when compared to the intense second part of Crusader.  Still, this was a pretty amazing story, and I loved how the author managed to ensure that his tale contained both excitement and fascinating historical fact.

Just like in the first novel in this series, Kane spends considerable time examining the complex historical figure of Richard the Lionheart.  In this book, Richard is portrayed as a multifaceted and intense being with a wide range of emotions and moods.  Most of the story focuses on the classic King Richard, the inspirational and personable figure that the protagonist Rufus eagerly vows to follow.  This includes multiple portrayals of Richard’s prowess in combat, especially in the Holy Land where he leads his troops to many great victories.  The author features several intense battles throughout the book where Richard either lead the charge or proved to be something more than human, such as fighting through a superior forces or chasing off an entire army by himself.  I initially assumed that Kane was taking a bit of artistic licence with some of these outrageous scenes, but it turns out that most were based on real historical accounts.  While I found these epic depictions of Richard to be cool, I also appreciated the way in which Kane tries to show the king’s darker side.  There are multiple scenes that portray Richard in a despondent mood, especially when faced with setbacks or betrayals, and this low mood could often transform into a dangerous anger at a drop of a hat.  This makes for a very complex and contrary portrayal, and I really appreciated the way in which Kane attempted to examine the true mind and thoughts of Richard, as seen by his closest friend.

It was also really interesting to see the continued growth of Rufus throughout Crusader, as he keeps moving away from the helpless Irish hostage he was at the start of the series, and is now a knight and close companion to the King.  Rufus goes through a lot in this novel, and it was fascinating to see how he deals with the horrors and dangers of the war around him.  I found his description and concern about the massacre of Acre to be particularly intense, and it was interesting to see him witness such an event while remaining loyal and dedicated to Richard.  Rufus’s rivalries and loves were a major focus of this novel, and it is clear that Kane is setting up something major with them for the final novel.  It was also intriguing to see the changes occurring with additional fictional character Rhys, Rufus’s squire and close confidant, who has accompanied the protagonist on all his adventures.  Rhys, after killing a vicious knight in the first book, has become a little bloodthirsty, and is constantly seeking to prove himself in combat, much to Rufus’s concern.  I really enjoyed the inclusion of these fictional characters amongst the more historically accurate tale of Richard’s campaigns, and it serves as a great narrative device, while also adding in some additional drama and conflict.  I am very curious about how Rufus and Rhys’s stories will end in the final book, although I am not expecting a happy ending.

Overall, Crusader was a pretty amazing historical novel that presented a detailed and captivating picture of King Richard’s crusades.  Loaded up with some excellent portrayals of historical events and a series of epic battles, Crusader will appeal to a wide range of historical fiction fans, and readers will have an outstanding time digging through Kane’s captivating text.  A clever and intriguing novel, I am very keen to read the final entry in this series next year, especially as we all know how dark the final chapters of King Richard’s story are.

River of Gold by Anthony Riches

River of Gold Cover

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (Hardback – 6 August 2020)

Series: Empire – Book 11

Length: 339 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

From one of the top authors of Roman historical fiction, Anthony Riches, comes River of Gold, the action-packed and epic 11th entry in his bestselling Empire series.

Aegyptus, 187 AD.  Under the command of Tribune Scaurus, decorated Centurion and former fugitive, Marcus Valerius Aquila, serves with several elite veteran officers, each of whom has displeased the Imperial hierarchy in some way.  These Roman soldiers now find themselves part of an informal troubleshooter unit, destined to die if they should ever fail one of their impossible tasks.  The Roman Empire is once again in danger as a mysterious army advances from the south of Africa, killing a major garrison and conquering a key port city at the southernmost border of the empire.  In order to solve this problem, the Emperor’s corrupt advisor sends Centurion Marcus and his comrades on another dangerous mission.

Arriving in Alexandria, Marcus and his comrades discover a rich province riddled with corruption and with a much reduced military presence.  Taking command of the local legion, Scaurus marches what soldiers he can down to the site of the massacre to find a new grim reality waiting for them.  After centuries of peace, the mysterious kingdom of Kush has once again declared war on Rome, determined to claim what is rightfully theirs from the weakened Romans.  In order to stop them, Scaurus leads his force deep into enemy territory to recapture an abandoned fortress and hold it against impossible odds.  Their mission is borderline suicidal and only has a slim chance of success, but if anyone can pull of this impossible task, it is Marcus and his friends.

This was another fun and exciting historical novel from Riches which proved to be a fantastic new entry in his Empire series.  Riches is a prolific and talented author who has been writing since 2009, when he debuted the first Empire novel, Wounds of Honour.  Since then he has gone to write an additional 10 novels in this series, as well as writing his separate series, The Centurions.  I have previously read a few of Riches’s books, including the first three entries in the Empire series when they were released.  While these first three books were extremely enjoyable Roman historical fiction novels, I missed the chance to read a couple of entries in the series and fell too far behind to catch up.  However, I recently got a copy of this latest book and, as I was in the mood for a visit back to ancient Rome, I tried out River of Gold to see how it would turn out.

This proved to be a good decision on my behalf as River of Gold ended up being a fantastic and compelling read.  Riches sets up an excellent character-driven story that sets a group of unique Roman officers against a dangerous new foe.  The author does a good job setting the story up, allowing those readers unfamiliar with the series or the historical era to easily jump in, and then sets the characters toward their goals.  This results in a captivating narrative that has a good blend of action, character development and cool historical features, as the protagonists embark on a madcap plan to win the war.  This leads to a number of awesome battle scenes, including an extended siege sequence which was a lot of fun to read, and the various characters find themselves in sufficient danger throughout.  The story ends a tad suddenly, although Riches does a good job of setting up the overall conclusion to the main storyline.  This story also felt a bit short, and I think it could have benefited from another 50 pages or so, perhaps extending out the siege sequence and adding in some more action and peril there.  However, this was still an overall excellent narrative which I was able to get through in only a few short days.

Riches spends a good part of River of Gold focusing on the various characters he has introduced and developed over the course of his long-running series, and this proves to be an entertaining group of protagonists.  In order to examine these characters Riches utilises a detailed, in-narrative character introduction near the start of the book, in which a newcomer reads off personnel files about each of the recurring characters.  While this was rather forced and inelegant way to introduce the characters and their history, it does the job and allows the readers to get an idea of who these protagonists are and their various quirks.  I found this particularly useful after having skipped several books in the series, and new readers will definitely appreciate the background.  Most of these characters get some intriguing arcs throughout the book.  For example, Marcus is once again the lead character of the novel as he tends to get the most important missions and ends up in the most danger, including a particularly close look at the Kush and their society.  Marcus is a fairly typical Roman historical fiction protagonist who has gone from raw recruit to hardened veteran throughout the course of the series, and it was interesting to see the various developments that have occurred since the last Empire novel I read.  Tribune Scaurus also gets a fair bit of attention as the leader of the Roman force and the mastermind behind their attack.  Scaurus is a good leader character, providing the rest of the characters with backbone and fortitude, and I liked his rather unique command style that relates to the dangerous political situation he finds himself in.  The other major character arc that I liked revolved around Cotta, the group’s veteran centurion and Marcus’s mentor, who reluctantly returns to Aegyptus for the first time after assassinating a Roman general who sought to rebel against the Emperor.  Cotta’s interesting subplot revolved around him reminiscing about his past mistakes while he attempts to hide his identity from the legion they have taken over, as they suffered as a result of his actions.  All of these recurring characters provided a great base for the story and some major moments that occurred will definitely rock readers, especially those long-term fans of the series.

While the recurring characters are good, I really have to highlight some of the new characters that Riches created for this novel, one of whom in particular outshines the rest.  This new character is Demetrius, a Christian who accompanies the army down south as part of his holy mission.  Demetrius is a complex and enjoyable character mainly due to his past as a vicious Christian-hunting Roman soldier.  After a series of brutalities, Demetrius sought redemption by joining the Christian cult, and now he fights against the invaders, believing that this fight is a holy war.  Riches focuses a good amount of the plot on Demetrius, and he proves to be a captivating and central figure, offering words of wisdom and defending his newfound Christian beliefs.  I found the author’s portrayal of this character to be really intriguing and I liked the close relationship he formed with some of the recurring characters, especially Marcus, despite that fact that none of them are Christians.  The other new character I liked was Ptolemy, an Imperial secretary and scribe assigned to the group, who provides them with relevant information and history to assist with their mission.  Ptolemy is essentially a walking piece of exposition, and a large amount of the book’s historical information is revealed thanks to him.  Despite this, he was a rather entertaining character, mainly due to the odd-couple friendship he formed with Dubnus.  The two characters are pretty much opposites in every way and end up bickering on a number of subjects, while also building up a mutual respect for each other.  This fun discourse between the two resulted in some great moments throughout the book and he was an interesting addition to the plot.

In addition to the fun story and great range of characters, Riches also invests a significant amount of time and effort in bringing the historical aspects of this novel to life.  The author has obviously done some serious research on the subject of Roman military history as he does a wonderful job showcasing various elements of the Roman legions and soldiers to life, including gear, unit makeup and tactics.  This also translates incredibly across into the various combat scenes throughout the novel, as you get a real feel for how a Roman solider would have felt in combat, especially at the Centurion level, although Riches mostly focuses on unique fight situations in this book.  The book also contains a number of detailed descriptions of the historical landscapes that the protagonists traverse through, such as Alexandria and the rest of historical Egypt.  This proved to be quite a fascinating inclusion in the story and I always enjoy seeing an author’s depiction of historical settings.  However, the most fascinating part of this novel has to be the inclusion of the ancient African Kingdom of Kush, with whom our protagonists face off against.  The Kushites were a powerful and advanced civilization, who, until recently, have been somewhat overlooked by historians and archaeologists.  Riches does an incredible job working them into his novel and setting them up as a rival kingdom to Rome.  Not only does he feature a number of detailed depictions of their culture and military make up during the events of the book, but he also spends time exploring the history of Kush, including their origins as a civilization, their prior history throughout Aegyptus and their conflicts with the Romans.  This was easily one of the most interesting and compelling elements of River of Gold, and I really appreciated Riches’s inclusion of such a unique historical adversary.  Indeed, all of the historical inclusions in this book are excellent, and I had an amazing time exploring them as the story progressed.

River of Gold by Anthony Riches is a captivating and enjoyable novel that takes the reader on a fascinating and action-packed journey through history.  Riches does an excellent job continuing his bestselling Empire series, and I had a great time getting through his exciting story, loaded with great characters and an impressive historical background.  All of this results in an amazing historical fiction novel that is well worth checking out, whether you are a fan of this long-running series or a general historical fiction fan looking for a fun adventure story.

Usagi Yojimbo – Vol 33: The Hidden by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo The Hidden Cover

Publisher: Dark Horse Books (9 July 2019)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Volume 33

Length: 200 pages

My Rating: 5 out of stars

While there are a number of great books and comics coming out this year, one of the releases that I have been most keenly looking forward to was this year’s volume of Usagi Yojimbo. Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai is a fantastic comic book series that utilises Japanese style, characters and history into an excellent series. This series is one of my favourite bodies of work, and I will move heaven and earth to get each instalment, and I especially loved last year’s volume, Mysteries. I was pretty darn excited to get the 33rd volume, The Hidden, and powered through it the afternoon that I received it.

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The Hidden continues the story of Miyamoto Usagi, a wandering ronin samurai who lives in a version of medieval Japan populated by anthropomorphic animals. Usagi’s life occurs in the early 17th century, during the Edo era of Japan. This is a pretty interesting time period to set a story, as with the land mostly at formal peace thanks to the rule of the Shogun, many samurai have been forced to roam the land without a master to serve. Usagi, a highly skilled samurai based on the legendary historical warrior Miyamoto Musashi, has been forced to live the ronin lifestyle after the death of his lord. Wandering the roads and seeking employment as a Yojimbo (a bodyguard), Usagi encounters all manner of rogues, bandits and criminals, as well as a number of supernatural foes from Japanese folklore.

The Hidden is made up of issues #166-#172 of the series and is actually one of the rare Usagi Yojimbo volumes to feature just one single adventure rather than multiple interconnected or standalone stories. This volume also continues to pair Usagi with Inspector Ishida for the entire volume. Ishida, who is essentially a Japanese Sherlock Holmes (although based on real-life Honolulu policeman Chang Apana), is a recurring character within the Usagi series who has appeared in multiple volumes, often for just one issue or adventure. However, after teaming up to investigate a murder a couple of volumes ago, Usagi has been living in Ishida’s town and assisting him with his investigations. As a result, Ishida has become a secondary protagonist for the last two volumes, with Mysteries, for example, focusing on the two solving several different crimes.

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This new volume starts with a brand-new case, when two samurai are pursued into the city and brutally murdered. When Usagi and Ishida discover crucifixes on the dead samurai’s bodies, they quickly realise that both the victims where Kirishitans (Christians). Christianity, which has been bought into the country by European missionaries, has recently been outlawed in Japan by the Shogun, and his agents are hunting down all practitioners. It soon becomes clear that the dead samurai were killed by agents of the Shogun who were attempting to recover a mysterious book of foreign design.

However, in a twist of fate, a petty thief manages to steal the book off the corpse of one of the samurai. This thief is now the most wanted man in the city, as the Shogunate agents and their hired killers attempt to find him and the book at all costs. As Usagi and Ishida work out what has happened, they are determined to bring the killers to justice. Hunting for both the book and the criminal who stole it, Usagi and Ishida, with the help of the masked master-thief Nezumi, manage to locate part of the book, and what they discover could rock the entirety of Japan. As they attempt to come to terms with their discovery, the Shogunate agents determine that the two investigators are a threat and decide to eliminate once and for all.

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While I may have had to wait a whole year to read this latest volume, it was definitely worth it. Sakai has once again produced an outstanding comic book that I could not have put down for anything. Not only has Sakai written an intriguing and clever story with a great mystery and an informative look at a new aspect of Japanese history, but he tells it through his beautiful Japanese-inspired artwork that really brings the characters and the landscape to life. Together this results in another exceptional piece of work that I absolutely loved.

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The main story focuses upon Usagi and Ishida’s investigation into the murders of Christian samurai and the hunt for the mysterious book the Shogunate agents are searching for. This was a really interesting story, and I liked how Sakai took the entire volume to really flesh out the investigation. The two characters go on a compelling adventure in this book, running into a number of colourful characters, dodging political restraints, interrogating a number of suspicious characters and getting into several deadly fights. However, what starts out as an intriguing investigation soon turns into a deep and powerful tale of convictions, belief and faith, and the things one must do to preserve all three. This is shown by a number of characters, including Usagi and Ishida, who risk everything to find the truth and more. There is also the amazing character arc of new character Hama, whose heart-rending sacrifice is one of the most memorable parts of this book. There is also a fairly major revelation about one of the other characters towards the end of the volume that actually changes the way you see the story and is guaranteed to make you look back to see the various things you missed the first time. Several recurring Usagi characters are used exceedingly well in this book. The mysterious masked thief Nezumi makes a great return, helping the protagonists with their investigation. It is always cool to see Nezumi in action, and I enjoy seeing the grudging respect build between him and Ishida, despite them living on opposite sides of the law. Everyone’s favourite snitch, Toady, makes another appearance, adding a lot of humour to the story as he attempts to weasel his way into more gold. Overall, this was another well-written and captivating story that was a real pleasure to read.

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One of my favourite aspects of the Usagi Yojimbo books is that Sakai often uses them to explore some fascinating piece of Japanese history, culture, mythology or industry and present them in a way that his western audience can appreciate. I was really glad that he continued this trend in The Hidden, as this time he takes an intriguing look at the role of early Japanese Christians in 17th century Japan. These Christians, who are the titular hidden ones of this volume, were an outlawed minority, due to Christianity directly contradicting a number of traditional Japanese beliefs and therefore challenging the authority of the Shogun. This latest volume shows this persecution in action, as the city is locked down by agents of the Shogun who are hunting for a valuable Christian item. The reader gets a sense of the illicit and hidden nature of these Christians and the way they were hunted, and Sakai also shows certain unique parts of this hunt, such as the fumi-e (trampling image). The fumi-e was an image of a cross that the Shogun’s enforcers placed on the ground in front of the gates of barricades that were set up at key points of the city. In order to pass through the barricades, pedestrians were forced to stamp on the image, showing their disdain for the Christian religion, and those who refused to step on the image were arrested as Christians. This was a fascinating part of Japanese history that I found incredibly interesting to see in action, and one that Sakai was able to cleverly work into the book’s plot. There were also a few fun scenes which looked at a black-market dealer who sold items which originated outside of Japan. Due to the Shogun isolating the country, these were incredibly valuable items, and I liked seeing what items this dealer considered valuable (the dealer’s European dress also made for a stunning visual as well). All of this was really cool to learn about, and I cannot wait to see what aspects of historical Japan the author explores in his next volume.

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Sakai’s fantastic artwork is once again one of the major highlights of this volume. Sakai is a particularly skilled artist who always does a fantastic job bringing the beauty and grace of Japan and its culture to life. The artwork on the surrounding landscape is just spectacular, and I always love attention to the historical detail on the buildings and people inhabiting his towns. One of the highlights of The Hidden that I particularly liked was the consecutive prayer gates leading up to a shrine that the characters visit. The visuals on all these gates were just amazing and very distinctive. I also really enjoyed the way that Sakai portrays his battle sequences in his series; he has a real talent for bring multiple high-energy battle scenes to life. I especially like how he manages to convey so much action and intensity in his still frames, and it really shows off some cool aspects of Japanese sword play. This was another beautifully illustrated volume, and the great art goes exceedingly well with the fantastic story Sakai has devised.

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Volume 33 of Usagi Yojimbo, The Hidden, was another excellent addition to this amazing series. Sakai once again produces a compelling story in his unique comic-book universe which results in a spectacular volume that I know I am going to read again and again in the future. While this was an outstanding Usagi Yojimbo story, I now have the downside of having to wait a whole other year to get my next Usagi fix. Make sure to check back next year when I will no doubt gush about how much I loved volume 34 of this series.

War of the Wolf by Bernard Cornwell

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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.

My Rating:

Five Stars