War of the Wolf book review

By Leroy Douresseaux
October 1, 2018 - 13:25

War of the Wolf cover image

War of the Wolf is a new novel from Bernard Cornwell, a bestselling British author of historical novels.  This is the eleventh book in Cornwell’s “Saxon Tales” series, his epic story of the making of England and his continuing story of Saxon warlord, Uhtred of Bebbanburg.  “The Saxon Tales” series is also known as “The Last Kingdom” series (named for the first novel in the series).  The Last Kingdom has been adapted into a television series.  In War of the Wolf, Uhtred cannot enjoy the benefits of winning back his ancestral home because he is beset on all sides, by enemies both old and new.

It is the early 920s (A.D.).  War of the Wolf finds Uhtred cold-chilling in his family's fortress, Bebbanburg, which he recently recaptured from a usurper.  He will not leave, even to attend the funeral of cherished friend and former lover, Æthelflaed, the late Queen of Mercia.  Her brother, King Edward of Wessex, not long after his sister's body was walled into the family crypt, quickly took control of Mercia.  However, a mysterious monk arrives one day claiming that Prince Æthelstan, Edward's (bastard?) son and once favored to be the new ruler of Mercia, needs Uhtred's help.  His garrison at Ceaster is under assault.

Æthelstan grew up under the protection of Uhtred, so the legendary and feared pagan lord leads 90 of his fiercest warriors to the prince's aid, but the mission is not as he was told.  Now, Uhtred is surrounded and threatened on all sides, instead of being home and enjoying victory.  Edward's bid to cease power and to unite the Saxon kingdoms into one nation known as Englaland (England) has created a “Game of Thrones” like scenario.  Uhtred and his family may have to bend to the will of Edward and his demands by swearing fealty to him.

So Lord Uhtred is fighting on what he considers to be the wrong side... again, but a new, formidable, upstart and alien enemy will challenge the pagan's lord's place, heritage, and faith.  He is the young Norse warrior, Sköll Grimmarson, who wants to be King of Northumbria, and that means he must have the lands of both Uhtred and his son-in-law, Sigtryggr.  Uhtred has bested all his enemies, but in Sköll, he finds an enemy seemingly favored by the gods.  And if that does not give Uhtred pause, Sköll's crazed wolf-warriors, the “Ūlfheonar,” will.

THE LOWDOWN:  I have read the seventh through the eleventh entries in “The Saxon Tales” series.  I never get tired of them, and I always want more.  Bernard Cornwell's novels have earned praise from many circles.  George R.R. Martin, the author of A Song of Fire and Ice (the inspiration for HBO's “Game of Thrones”), says that Cornwell writes the best battles scenes he has ever read.  USA Today has declared Cornwell “the reigning king of historical fiction.”  They are not lying.

I have practically run out of ways to praise Cornwell.  One would think that these novels about the events leading to the creation of England would have run out of steam – eleven books in.  How do you keep a long-running series fresh?  It is new plots?  Is it new adversaries?  No and no, the plots are more or less variations of familiar themes, it seems in the books I have read.  The enemies are basically the same, every novel featuring one major and at least a few minor land-grubbers.  Has Lord Uhtred changed?  Of course not.

What keeps “The Saxon Tales” fresh?  Bernard Cornwell does.  He is simply a gifted writer and a mack daddy, master storyteller.  It is as if every word he puts down on paper is the right word to advance the story.  Cornwell's prose is vivid and evocative without being lavish.  His plots are familiar but formidable.  His settings are epic; even when Cornwell places his characters under a grove of trees for the night, it feels as if that is the place where legends are made.

If Cornwell replaced Lord Uhtred with Bob Newhart, his books like War of the Wolf would still have a strangle-hold on the reader's imagination.  In War of the Wolf, someone uses the term, “lord king,” and I like that.  So I will say that Bernard Cornwell is the “Lord King of historical fiction.”

I READS YOU RECOMMENDS:  Fans of Bernard Cornwell and readers looking for great novels will want War of the Wolf.

9 out of 10

Rating: 9 /10

Last Updated: January 24, 2022 - 11:00

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