Bernard Cornwell writes the manly kind of historical fiction, the kind that prefers a bloody decapitation to a daring décolletage. His latest, Lords Of The North, continues his Saxon Tales series about the rise of Alfred the Great and the creation of England in a maelstrom of Danes, Vikings, steely pagans, fretting Christians, and ruthless slavers. His narrator is Uhtred, a rogue warrior who wanders from Wessex to Northumbria lending his sword to kings and causes he despises, in order to pursue a blood feud against the maniacal Dane who stole his birthright and holds his stepsister hostage.
This is no romance or grand adventure. Readers of Cornwell's Sharpe novels about the Napoleonic Wars (21 books and counting) might be put off by the grimness and cynicism of these nearly anarchic tales. Uhtred abandons Alfred's war against the Danes due to the king's insufficient gratitude for his service, and journeys with a fallen nun toward Dunholm, where his sworn enemy Ivarr lies behind impregnable walls. When he inadvertently frees a gaggle of slaves from one of Ivarr's allies, he's thrown in with a genial youth named Guthred whom the Christian priests have declared king, and seeing an opportunity to kill two enemies with one stone, he becomes Guthred's sword arm. But Ivarr tricks Guthred into selling Uhtred into slavery, and for two years, he pulls a trade ship's oar and dreams of the beautiful Gisela, Guthred's sister, and of the slow tortures he'll inflict on Ivarr when they finally meet.
Blood flows freely, mud cakes the shining mail, gibbering priests scheme for glory and treasure their dead Saint Cuthbert more than their living flock, and superstitious pagans believe that zombie warriors are coming to eat their souls. It's an ugly picture of the past, bracing in its fatalism and insularity. Cornwell re-imagines the epic nation-building clashes between Saxon and Dane as grubby provincial feuds between dispossessed nomads with no greater ambition than to die sword in hand, then join the feast in Valhalla. Their Hobbesian lives and messy deaths are the obverse of Sharpe's gleaming rifles and gallant charges. In Uhtred, Cornwell creates a man with nothing to offer but brute strength, a jaded worldview, and a long, bitter memory, and strangely enough, he's the perfect anti-hero for these patriotic times.