Warriors of the Storm | Bernard Cornwell | 2015 | HarperCollins | 298p | Review copy | Buy the book
King Alfred is dead and the Vikings are kept away by an uneasy peace, but all that is about to change. Alfred’s kingdoms have been divided – his son Edward is king of Wessex and East Anglia while his daughter Aethelflaed rules Mercia. Aethelflaed’s greatest warrior Uhtred controls Chester, Mercia’s gateway to the west, and it’s there that the threat lands. Merciless Viking Ragnall Iverson arrives from Ireland with his fearsome Irish and Viking army. His plans are ambitious and it takes all of Uhtred’s considerable skill as warrior and strategist to work it out. But, in the meantime, Ragnall attacks settlements around Chester, spreading terror as much as blood. It looks as if Chester itself, enclosed within its mighty Roman walls, is in danger. The timing could not be worse. Everyone who is anyone, including Aethelflaed, is gathering in the city for the enthronement of Leofstan as the first bishop of Chester. To keep the city safe, Uhtred knows he must risk everything and take the war to Ragnall. Of course, matters aren’t helped by the fact that Uhtred’s daughter is married to Ragnall’s brother…
From the opening pages, Bernard Cornwell casts us into a bubbling cauldron of violence, war, treachery, fear and heroism. As Ragnall cuts his path through land and lives, Uhtred responds in the only way he can, meeting sword with sword, testing Ragnall, and, worst of all, picking up the pieces after Ragnall has ransacked another community. But he has more to contend with than ferocious, bloodthirsty Vikings. In these difficult Alfred-less days, danger threatens also from within. There are traitors about. Just as well that Uhtred has a way of sniffing them out.
Old and new worlds collide in the forests and river valleys around Chester. Uhtred and many of his men wear the hammer talismans of ancient gods around their necks. Others wear the cross. And as Easter approaches, coinciding intentionally with the enthronement, there is a divide, not least in attitudes towards this festival which had its origins in pre-Christian days.
It comes as a surprise to Uhtred, and perhaps to us, that one of the most likeable figures in this novel rich in character is Leofstan. This lowly priest, soon to become bishop, is an extraordinary figure, enriched by humour as much as humanity. There are hidden sides to this godly man and his robe-swathed wife and it is a joy to discover them. Aethelflaed is an intriguing character in an enormously tricky situation and I liked her sense of control even if it does frustrate Uhtred at times. The enemy Ragnall is less three-dimensional but he is horribly evil, as are some of the men with him, and he’s there to enjoy.
Uhtred is, of course, the leading figure and he dominates throughout. The narrative is his, spoken in the first person, and his character is charismatic as well as down to earth. This no-nonsense warrior is good company. His relationships with his children is a regular theme through the novel and I welcomed it. Uhtred has proved himself time after time and he is afraid of no-one. Fortunately, Aethelflaed is well aware of his worth. I’m ashamed to admit that Warriors of the Storm is my first encounter with Uhtred and, while it is true that I would have definitely appreciated the foibles and character of this powerful personality much more fully if I had read the other books first, I took to him instantly. There are a fair few moments when friends and enemies, now gone but not forgotten, are mentioned and there is a strong sense of stories about their lives that are waiting to be heard. I really want to listen to them and I am now buying up the series. I have the first, The Last Kingdom, ready to go.
I haven’t read much Cornwell before because I have a mysterious aversion to Sharpe and, I’m sorry to say, this had put me off his other novels, but I instantly fell for Warriors of the Storm. I loved its adventurous spirit, twinned as it is with a fantastically realised sense of place and time. I loved the mention of Roman roads and ruined walls and buildings. I could see these people in their landscape. They’re firmly rooted in it. There’s little mysticism here and I really welcomed that. This is a plain-speaking novel but it also colourful and lively, with humour and rage. My one complaint is that I wish it were longer.
Warriors of the Storm is such an exciting, well-written historical adventure, packed with action and thrills as well as strong personalities and religious tension. I would recommend this series to anyone and I regret that I’ve only just embarked on it. But it’s never too late!