The Saxon Tales: Two Observations

I am reading Bernard Cornwell’s Death of Kings now, the latest in his Saxon Tales (it’s in ARC form, and I get to read it thanks to Amazon’s Vine program… nyaah, nyaah).  It’s awesome, and I’ll have a review up on Amazon and Goodreads within the week.  I want to make two observations about this series here that should interest writers:

1. These books are about King Alfred the Great of Wessex, but Alfred is not the only (or main) protagonist, and not the point of view character, even though he and his struggles drive much of the action.  Why is that?  He’s a central actor in his time, the only European king to hold his kingdom together in the face of the viking invasion, a reformer who translated the Bible in English, promoted literacy, organized his country’s settlements into a defensive network and founded the English navy.  He had problems, he struggled for solutions, and he triumphed — isn’t that the essence of plot?

But Alfred triumphed as a leader and as a thinker and as a diplomat, and those roles aren’t as interesting to watch as guy-with-a-sword.  Also, Alfred was very pious, so pious he is easier to respect than to sympathize with.  So Cornwell invents a protagonist whom he can weave into all the stories, a guy who is conflicted up the wazoo (English but pagan, Alfred’s man but hates Alfred, etc.), who is a smart, irreverent man of action, to be a second protagonist and the point of view character.  Much more so than Alfred, Uhtred is a guy we can sympathize with.

2. Cornwell does a great job evoking Saxon Britain, and how does he do it?  He wastes little time on stuff, and instead focuses on people.  Relationships, institutions, customs, political structures and religious practices are all portrayed and together do a great job of transporting us to Alfred’s Wessex and its neighbors.

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