Recently, The New York Times had a long editorial excoriating President Bush over the treatment of al-Qaeda and Taliban prisoners in the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. If you didn't read this particular piece, odds are you've seen something similar: calls to close Guantanamo, end the military tribunals, provide free legal counsel for detainees, and so on. Basically, it's a call to apply a set of rules to detainees --- the rules of the Geneva Convention and the Constitutional rules regarding the right to counsel and the right against self-incrimination. No matter which rules you think are appropriate, nearly everyone agrees that there must be certain regulations that govern how prisoners are treated.
In the ninth-century world of Bernard Cornwell's LORDS OF THE NORTH, this is how it works. You have a ring of people carrying branches from a hazel tree, which provide the same function as ropes in a boxing ring. You take your prisoner, give him a sword and match him up against the best fighter from the victorious side. And only one of the two men is coming out of the ring alive. Those are the rules. Actually, it's a good deal --- because the alternatives include hanging and roasting to death. If you're a Viking captured in battle, there are worse ways to lose your life than with a sword in your hand --- at least that way you get to feast in the mead-halls of Valhalla instead of spending eternity at what Cornwell calls the "corpse-hall," which sounds much less fun than even Guantanamo.
LORDS OF THE NORTH is the third in a series of books (THE LAST KINGDOM and THE PALE HORSEMAN) about the battles between the Danes and the Saxons in the kingdom of Alfred the Great. The novels follow Uhtred, a Saxon by birth but a Dane by philosophy and inclination, as he plays off both sides to get what he wants --- riches, fame, women, and most importantly, revenge. Here, Uhtred leaves Alfred's southern kingdom in search of adventure. (The first two installments featured Alfred prominently; he's only a supporting character here, which is good because he comes off as a bit of a pill.)
Uhtred's glory-road leads to the northeast corner of England, where he hopes to face old enemies Kjartan the Cruel and Sven the One-Eyed. His long-term goal is to regain the fortress of Bebbanburg, where his father once ruled, but revenge is also on his mind. He finds his enemies without too much trouble, but accidentally manages to liberate a slave named Guthred, who turns out to be the rightful king of Northumbria. With the fervent backing of the Church, Guthred takes command, raises an army under the banner of Saint Cuthbert, and sets himself against the Danish warlords who threaten the peace.
LORDS OF THE NORTH is striking in that it manages to display even more ruthlessness and treachery than the previous entries in the series, not to mention one stunning, unexpected plot twist. But Uhtred is up to the task; he returns to the North to settle accounts and take his long-delayed revenge at last, in the shield-wall.
Cornwell's masterful touch in describing wars and warriors has not deserted him here, and the final battle is as satisfying as it is barbaric and bloody. Uhtred's tale is grim, blood-soaked and defiantly politically incorrect, but it is also rousing, stirring and even philosophical at times. Fate, we're reminded over and over again, is inexorable. Should yours draw you to the shield-wall of the Vikings, you'll have no better guide than Bernard Cornwell.
Reviewed by Curtis Edmonds on January 6, 2011