Thursday, February 13, 2014


HARPERCOLLINS/Harper – @HarperCollins

AUTHOR: Bernard Cornwell
ISBN: 978-0-06-196970-6; hardcover (January 7, 2013)
320pp, B&W, $27.99 U.S.

The Pagan Lord: A Novel is a 2014 British novel from New York Times bestselling author, Bernard Cornwell, a popular British writer of historical novels.  This is the seventh book in Cornwell’s “Saxon Tales” series and continues the story of Saxon warlord, Uhtred of Bebbanburg.  The Pagan Lord takes place 10 years after the events of The Death of Kings and is largely set in Anglo-Saxon Mercia and Northumbria.  Uhtred fights against yet another new Danish conquest plot to bring down the kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex.

The Pagan Lord opens early in the 10th century and finds England in turmoil.  Alfred the Great is dead, and his son, Edward, reigns as King of Wessex.  Edward seems determined to hold onto Wessex without making waves, but while peace survives, it cannot hold forever.  The Danes in the north, led by Viking Cnut Longsword, stand ready to invade and will never rest until all of Saxon Britain is under Danish control.

As the novel begins, Uhtred Ragnarson, a pagan who worships Thor, arrives in a small village to stop his eldest son, Uhtred, son of Uhtred, from becoming a Christian.  During the struggle, Uhtred accidentally kills Abbot Wihtred, a bishop.  Uhtred was once Alfred’s great warrior, but now he is out of favor with the new king.  Combine that with his rash actions regarding his son, and suddenly, Uhtred is marked for death by every devout Christian and finds himself expelled from Mercia.

Uhtred decides this is the best time to recapture his father’s fortress Bebbanburg, which is held by his treacherous uncle Ælfric of Bebbanburg.  With a small band of warriors left to him, Uthred heads North to reclaim what is rightfully his.  It is during that journey that he gradually realizes another great Danish scheme to crush the Saxon kingdoms of Britain is being planned or maybe even already launched.

Early last year, 1356: A Novel popped my Bernard Cornwell / British historical fiction cherry, so I’m partial to it.  I have to be honest and say that I did not enjoy The Pagan Lord as much as I did 1356.  Let me be clear, however, The Pagan Lord, is an excellent read.  People who enjoy watching films like Braveheart and The Eagle and television series like “Game of Thrones” would do well to fend off illiteracy by reading The Pagan Lord or any Cornwell, for that matter.

How much the reader likes The Pagan Lord will depend on how much he (or even she) likes Lord Uhtred, the pagan lord of the title.  I found his blood-thirstiness, viciousness, and brutality off-putting; sometimes, he kills so mechanically that it is boring.  On the other side, he is surprisingly thoughtful and imaginative.  I found myself lulled by this tendency towards killing, so I was always delighted that, like a master strategist, Uhtred was discovering, unraveling, and sorting through the details of various plots, schemes, and conspiracies.  Uhtred is a thinking man’s hack-and-slash dude.

The Pagan Lord focuses so much on Lord Uhtred that other characters mostly remain ciphers, and what is known is only knowable by what Uhtred says about them.  Still, The Pagan Lord: A Novel is an enthralling tale about the birth pangs of Great Britain, and although it is fiction, it ain’t no fiction that Bernard Cornwell is the Man.


Reviewed by Leroy Douresseaux

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