The year is 878 and Wessex is free from the Vikings. Uhtred, the dispossessed son of a Northumbrian lord, helped Alfred win that victory, but now he is disgusted by Alfred’s lack of generosity and repelled by the king’s insistent piety. He flees Wessex, going back north to seek revenge for the killing of his foster father and to rescue his stepsister, captured in the same raid.
He needs to find his old enemy, Kjartan, a renegade Danish lord who lurks in the formidable stronghold of Dunholm. Uhtred arrives in the north to discover rebellion, chaos and fear. His only ally is Hild, a West Saxon nun fleeing her calling, and his best hope is his sword, with which he has made a formidable reputation as a warrior. He will need the assistance of other warriors if he is to attack Dunholm and he finds Guthred, a slave who believes he is a king.
He takes him across the Pennines to where a desperate alliance of fanatical Christians and beleaguered Danes form a new army to confront the terrible Viking lords who rule Northumbria. ‘The Lords of the North’ is a powerful story of betrayal, romance and struggle, set in an England of turmoil, upheaval and glory.
Lords of the North is another action packed novel from Cornwell which ties up some of the loose threads from the previous two books, most notably with the conclusion of the storyline involving Kjarten, and the rescue of Thyra. While The Saxon Stories are primarily about Uhtred’s relationship with Alfred, the pair are kept apart for most of this book as Uhtred continues to sulk over Alfred’s attitude towards him. Uhtred travels north with Hild, the Saxon nun, but she is no match for the sorely missed Leofric. A whole load of new subplots are soon woven in with the introduction of Guthred, the Danish slave who becomes the King of Northumbria and his sister, Gisela, who is Uhtred’s new love interest.
Just as it seems Uhtred is finally in a position to turn his attentions to reclaiming Bebbanburg, he is cruelly betrayed and spends the next two years chained to an oar where he meets another significant character, Finan, a fellow slave. Beaten and starved, Uhtred is suitably humbled by his experience but his spirit is never broken and the lasting effects on his temperament remain to be seen. After Uhtred is rescued, he is taken back to Wessex where he finally comes face to face with Alfred once more who wants to send Uhtred on a mission to the north to help Guthred keep his throne. Needless to say, Uhtred is not too happy with Guthred but since the mission will give him the chance to pursue Kjarten, he swallows his pride and accepts. The interplay between Alfred and Uhtred is always a fun read because the king is so manipulative and while poor Uhtred may think he is making his own decisions, he really is not.
Although Uhtred carries out Alfred’s orders, he inevitably puts his own spin on things and while he makes his peace with Guthred, it is only after all other avenues have been explored. With Guthred on the throne and Ragnar reunited with his Danish supporters, the brothers turn their attention to Dunholm where they get their final bloody revenge on Kjarten. However, things are far from resolved for Uhtred as his uncle continues to meddle in his life and somehow Uhtred finds himself swearing fealty to Alfred once more.
One of the things I love about these books is the fact I know very little about this period of history so I don’t really know what’s going to happen next and while Cornwell admits to taking some liberties with the timing and the characters, it’s all completely plausible. I love how outspoken Uhtred is as a character and as Alfred is all too aware, Uhtred is the perfect foil against the Danes with his Saxon blood and Danish upbringing. However, Uhtred is never complacent about defeating the Danes because he feels like he is one of them at heart and I love how he respects their culture by making sure they have a sword in their hand while killing them. Dying with a sword in the hand is very important to a Dane as it ensures the warrior will make it to Valhalla.