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Warriors of the Storm


Warriors of the Storm

Probably the best thing that has happened to Bernard Cornwell lately is the success of the HBO series based on the fantasy novels of George R. R. Martin. Since “Game of Thrones” was such a hit, someone reasoned that the Saxon Tales, in the right hands, could do as well.

I am in the midst of watching “The Last Kingdom,” the BBC America series that covers the first book in Cornwell’s series. It’s beautifully photographed but a little bloodless. That’s neither here nor there, I suppose --- it appears that BBC America doesn’t have the budget for top-notch actors or full-dress battle scenes, which is a shame and a scandal --- but it’s great that the series has the potential to bring more people to read more Cornwell, which is all to the good. (Of course, the BBC previously produced a series of movies featuring Richard Sharpe, Cornwell’s hero of the Napoleonic Wars, but those films aren’t easily available in the US. If anyone at Amazon is reading this and would like to put the Sharpe movies on Amazon Video, I would appreciate it very much.)

It is, however, completely unfair to compare the “Game of Thrones” experience to the Saxon Tales. The Saxon Tales have to follow (well, mostly) the path of history, while Martin is free to have his characters be roasted by dragons if he wishes. The Saxon Tales focus on their first-person narrator, Uhtred, a mighty Saxon war leader steeped in the culture of the invading Danes. Martin’s characters are famously diverse (and famously perishable, of course). Martin’s approach gives him every advantage but one, in that Cornwell is actually able to get his books published on a regular and predictable schedule. (I kid because I love, Mr. Martin.)

"There is a lot of killing in WARRIORS OF THE STORM, which is one of its principal attractions. In a time beset with microagression and special pleading for every conceivable ridiculous grievance, the Saxon Tales are a welcome and necessary escape into a more primal world."

If you want to explicate the differences between the two series, there’s one scene in WARRIORS OF THE STORM that’s helpful. Here, Uhtred is faced with a menacing Viking army led by his daughter’s brother-in-law. (I hope that’s clear.) He doesn’t have the manpower to face the Vikings in the field, and the Vikings won’t attack him in his citadel, so he’s forced to destroy the Viking army piecemeal. He discovers that a supposedly impregnable hilltop fort is lightly manned and fortified, and reduces it in a surprise attack.

But it’s also a treacherous surprise attack, as the leader of the enemy forces had previously convinced Aethelflaed, Queen of the Mercians and Uhtred’s sometime paramour, that they would convert to Christianity and surrender on Easter Sunday. This is a much bigger deal in a Cornwell novel than it ever would be in a Martin novel. There’s little or no struggle between religions in Westeros (unless you count Stannis Baratheon’s conversion as genuine, which I don’t necessarily); most everyone has the same religion, and nobody seems to make a big deal about it. In Cornwell’s England, the struggle between Christian and pagan beliefs is a constant refrain; Uhtred is always fingering his Thor’s hammer and mocking the “nailed God” of the Christians, almost to the point of parody.

When the battle is over, Uhtred corners the leader of the Viking fortress, who happens to be Haesten, an old enemy who has slithered his way through most of the Saxon Tales. There is considerable discussion as to whether or not Uhtred has the right to kill Haesten, and eventually he does. In a Martin book, Haesten would have been killed in some surprising and shocking manner 500 pages previously. Cornwell has a great deal of patience with his characters and makes sure to end their lives when he’s good and ready.

There is a lot of killing in WARRIORS OF THE STORM, which is one of its principal attractions. In a time beset with microagression and special pleading for every conceivable ridiculous grievance, the Saxon Tales are a welcome and necessary escape into a more primal world. Facing down the Viking threat doesn’t just require courage, fortitude and a stout shield wall. It requires Uhtred to devise endless canny strategies for diplomacy (not his strong suit, but he’s gotten better at it over time), persuasion and surviving hair-raising risks. Uhtred is triumphant here, but Cornwell makes you understand that his triumph is the result not only of martial virtue but also of cold-blooded calculation coupled with charisma and daring.

The real question in WARRIORS OF THE STORM is whether or not this is the penultimate book in the Saxon Tales. Cornwell has had the series pointed towards Uhtred’s ultimate goal of retaking his Northumbrian fortress for some time now --- a goal he almost achieved in THE PAGAN LORD before being routed. At long last, Uhtred has the manpower to take the castle --- a development that arguably would end his story. WARRIORS OF THE STORM does a lot more than set the stage for the next chapter in the saga, but it also may signal the beginning of its end.

Reviewed by Curtis Edmonds on January 22, 2016

Warriors of the Storm
by Bernard Cornwell

  • Publication Date: October 18, 2016
  • Genres: Adventure, Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0062250957
  • ISBN-13: 9780062250957