The Pale Horseman by Bernard Cornwell

Vertigo

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This is my second book by Cornwell and the second in the Saxon Stories series (aka The Last Kingdom) and it comfortably lives up to its predecessor. After his success at Cynuit at the end of the last book, Untred fails to capitalise on it and credit for that victory is taken by another but later, after a disastrous surprise attack by the Danes, he finds himself reluctantly press ganged into being Alfred’s saviour and protector and so becomes closely involved in Alfred’s fight back to regain Wessex.

If I have one complaint, and it’s possible that this is inevitable when writing in the first person, it is that the reader only really gets to know one character in any depth, that of the main character, Uhtred, from whose perspective the book is written. Most of the other characters are developed to some extent but not really with any depth. Though, as I say, this is possibly an inevitable consequence of the first person narration, especially in an era long before men were expected to get in touch with their softer sides and open up to their comrades with their inner feelings!

However the reader barely has time to notice that when the setting is so superbly painted, the story told so well and the battles described so vividly you almost have to check you still have all your limbs after reading them. And yet he achieves this without any real gratuitous goriness; in my opinion an extraordinary achievement especially when read in this modern world where an insatiable appetite for such goriness now seems to be the norm.

One other feature that endears these historical books to me is the historical notes that Cornwell appends to the end of the book, where he clearly and honestly tells the reader which aspects of the story are based on solid known history, which on more speculative history and where he has openly changed the known history for dramatic reasons. It is never going to be easy to have one character present at most of the major historical events without bending the chronology a little, but all credit to Cornwell for telling us exactly where he has done that.

An excellent book and I’m very much looking forward to the next in the series.

5/5 stars
 

Bugg

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Oh, you're in for a treat. I think the next book is still my favourite of the series, and it introduces one of my favourite characters, too. I differ with you slightly, in that I think he's great at drawing the other characters, even though we only get Uhtred's view of them :)
 

Vertigo

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Well I would agree with having a good view of them from Uhtred's perspective, I suppose it's because these days multiple POVs seem to be so popular (as well as frequently long books to support them) that I'm getting used to getting under the skin of multiple characters in each book. It's actually not something I noticed at all whilst reading as he put me so firmly in Uhtred's head that I kept feeling undressed without a sword at my side! It was only afterwards that I thought to myself that I really had very little idea of poor Iseult's thoughts and feelings which somehow seemed rather a shame.
 

Dave

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I have only read The Empty Throne. That begins with Uhtred in first person, but then after the first chapter switches to his son and continues like that. I have to say that I found that really odd, though I did like the book.
(Possibly, if I had read them in order then it would appear to be passing on the baton from father to son.) I expect this means that I should read them all, in order.
One other feature that endears these historical books to me is the historical notes that Cornwell appends to the end of the book, where he clearly and honestly tells the reader which aspects of the story are based on solid known history, which on more speculative history and where he has openly changed the known history for dramatic reasons.
I agree with that too.
 

The Big Peat

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Do read them all in order Dave.

And would be curious to know what anyone who has read the Saxon Kingdom books makes of the Warlord Chronicles.

One of the things I particularly like about the Saxon Kingdom books is how Uhtred clearly does not have our values yet still comes across as sympathetic.
 

Bugg

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And would be curious to know what anyone who has read the Saxon Kingdom books makes of the Warlord Chronicles.
The Warlord Chronicles are fantastic. The Winter King was the first Cornwell novel I read so I really didn't know what to expect from it but I was hooked within a page or two. I read the three books straight through without a break in between (something I rarely do) and - even having gone on to read the Saxon series, the Grail Quest series, and a few Sharpe books - they are still my favourites of his. I wrote a gushy review over here if you're interested: http://www.bookclubforum.co.uk/community/index.php?/topic/7865-steves-bookshelf-2011/?p=279360
 
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