Review

Sword Song: The Battle for London

by Bernard Cornwell

I
spent most of yesterday driving around central New Jersey, running
a number of miscellaneous errands, and I was thinking that there
isn't much place for a Viking in this modern world. None of the
characters who populate Bernard Cornwell's Saxon tales --- the
tireless men of the shield wall, the doughty warrior-priests, the
crafty boatmasters --- would be able to do what I did that day,
which was walk into Lowe's to get a new mailbox and pay for it with
a Visa card. Vikings are all very well off in the pages of
historical fiction, but the world of today requires a different
skill set.

Or so I thought. When I got home I did another un-Viking-like
thing. I fired up the DVR and played the first episode of the new
Ken Burns film on World War II. There was a mild-mannered
gray-haired retiree explaining how he hunted Japanese soldiers on
Bataan and didn't consider the day a success unless he had killed
at least one. That's the appropriate Viking attitude for you,
preserved down to this very day.

SWORD SONG, the fourth installment in The Saxon
Chronicles
, finds our hero Uhtred faced with the very modern
problem of a deadline. The half-ruined Roman town of Lundene has
been occupied by a new wave of Danish invaders, seeking to
capitalize on the divisions in the Saxon kingdoms of Britain. From
Lundene, the Vikings can control trade on the Temes River and raid
deep into the kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia. Uhtred is --- however
begrudgingly --- sworn to the service of Alfred, King of Wessex,
and Alfred has decreed that his new son-in-law is to be the new
ruler of Mercia. The Vikings must leave by the start of spring, or
else.

Although Uhtred is an utterly reliable and deadly warrior, he is
ill-suited for the task at hand. For one thing, his sympathies lie
toward the Danes, with whom he shares a religion and a fierce
fighting spirit. The Danes have promised him the kingdom of Mercia
if he will join them in overthrowing Alfred in Wessex, and they've
put together a ruse to convince him that the Fates themselves are
on their side. Not to mention that if Uhtred is victorious against
the Danes, he is assured to get none of the credit or the spoils of
battle.

It would be wrong to say that SWORD SONG is a psychological novel,
but it is one in which Uhtred spends a lot of time fretting ---
specifically about the conflict between his oaths to Alfred and the
fatalism of his philosophy. "Fate is inexorable," Uhtred reminds us
--- maybe one too many times --- so how can a man bind his future
conduct with an oath if fate decrees otherwise, especially if his
oath binds him to a near-suicidal river-borne assault against a
Viking shield wall?

And, of course, there's no way that Uhtred would back down from a
challenge like that, just like there's no way that Cornwell would
cheat his readers out of such a battle scene. Uhtred does take his
raiders pell-mell down the Thames to capture a gate from inside,
and a glorious, messy, bloody battle occurs. Just as Uhtred's place
is in the shield wall of battle, Cornwell's place is in his
description of armed conflict, making the chaos clear, bringing all
the little details to life and helping to ensure that the Viking
spirit gets carried down to the next generation.

Sword Song: The Battle for London
by Bernard Cornwell

  • Publication Date: January 22, 2008
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Harper
  • ISBN-10: 0060888644
  • ISBN-13: 9780060888640