The year is 885, and England is at peace, divided between the Danish Kingdom to the north and the Saxon kingdom of Wessex in the south. Warrior by instinct and Viking by nature, Uhtred, the dispossessed son of Northumbrian lord, has land, a wife and children-and a duty to King Alfred to hold the frontier on the Thames.
But a dead man has risen, and new Vikings have invaded the decayed Roman city of London with dreams of conquering Wessex…with Uhtred’s help. Suddenly forced to weigh his oath to the king against the dangerous turning side of shifting allegiances and deadly power struggles, Uhtred-Alfred’s sharpest sword-must now make the choice that will determine England’s future.
Almost five years have passed since the events of Lords of the North, and Uhtred has settled in Coccham with his wife, Gisela, and their two young children. Since the kingdoms are enjoying a rare period of peace, Alfred has ordered his noblemen to develop a network of burhs (burghs) to defend against attackers, however the only one who has achieved significant results so far is Uhtred.
As Alfred settles the terms for the marriage of his eldest daughter, Aethelflaed, to Uhtred’s cousin, Aethelred of Mercia, he orders Uhtred to free the city of Lundene as a wedding gift to his new son-in-law.
Lundene has been taken by two Norse brothers, Sigefrid and Erik, who want Uhtred and his brother, Ragnar, to join them in raising an army to take Wessex. As tempted as Uhtred may be to free himself from Alfred’s piety, he can’t bring himself to ignore his oath and he plans his attack on Lundene even though Alfred awards command of the force to his new son-in-law. Despite Aethelred’s incompetence, Uhtred finds a way to secure Lundene but his decision to free the Norse brothers comes back to haunt him when they later mount an attack on Aethelred and capture the king’s daughter. Distraught, Alfred turns to Uhtred to negotiate the terms for Aethelflaed’s ransom but Uhtred is shocked by her reluctance to return to her husband.
A little older and wiser, Uhtred has come to terms with the fact Alfred is never going to show his gratitude, yet he continues to do the king’s bidding as he is still bound by the oath he made which he is not willing to break. Uhtred has never hidden the fact he dislikes Alfred and his pious ways but I was immediately struck by how Uhtred’s dislike had deepened into hatred and that’s why he has become so conflicted about keeping his oath. Alfred is at his most unlikeable in Sword Song which may be down to his failing health but favouring his son-in-law over Uhtred is particularly grating, especially since Uhtred has been unfailingly loyal to him. In contrast, Alfred’s daughter, Aethelflaed, has formed a far stronger bond with Uhtred despite her young age and when she forces Uhtred to swear an oath to her, he does so with reluctance but with much more sincerity.
Although Uhtred seems quite domesticated in this book, it isn’t long before he is wielding Serpent-Breath once more and the battle scenes are as gory as ever. However, Cornwell is a little guilty of signposting looming disasters and you just know that heartache is about to come knocking at Uhtred’s door.