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Book Review: The Empty Throne

By (January 3, 2015) One Comment

The Empty Thronethe empty throne cover

by Bernard Cornwell

HarperCollins, 2015

The Empty Throne is the eighth installment in Bernard Cornwell’s “Saxon Tales” novels set in the British Isles in the ninth and early tenth century, all chronicling the rise and rocky reign of King Alfred the Great and his descendants and coevals in a fractured island under near-constant attack by Vikings and under near-constant internal pressure from rival claimants to, in this case, West Saxon rule. It’s a perfectly inviting era for an enterprising historical novelist, and Cornwell – most famous for his rippingly good Napoleonic-era “Sharpe” novels – has been making the most of it for the last ten years.

Exactly a year ago, in The Pagan Lord, Cornwell’s main character, Uhtred son of Uhtred son of Uhtred, was badly wounded in the novel’s climactic battle-sequence (which you would have read with your heart up high in your throat, because Cornwell’s action-sequences are pearls of pure adrenaline). In The Empty Throne, he’s still in severe pain from a wound that stubbornly refuses to heal, and he’s come to believe that the only thing that will cure him is to find the specific blade that wounded him in the first place. And in the meantime, there’s the empty throne of the book’s title: the Mercian king is dying, and the jockeying has begun for who will replace him. Uhtred’s loyalties are pledged to Aethelflaed, the winning daughter of the old king, despite the hard sell of getting the land’s rough-hewn citizens to accept a woman as their leader.

The juxtaposition is apt: Cornwell is clearly fascinated by the complexities of the role of women in medieval times, but he’s also clearly enamored of his alpha-warrior main character, who, in a pricelessly typical scene, lets hardly a moment pass between his being baptized (for the third time) into the Christian faith and his threatening the priest who dunked him:

Penda was happy. He had made his famous convert, and he had Finan and my son as his witnesses and as my godfathers. I took Finan’s big silver cross and hung it about my neck, giving him my pagan hammer in exchange, and after that I put my arm about Father Penda’s narrow shoulders and, still dressed in nothing but a sopping wet shirt, led him up the river bank to the shelter of a willow where we had a quiet discussion. We talked for a few minutes. At first he was reluctant to tell me what I wanted, but he yielded to persuasion. “You want a knife between your ribs, father?” I asked him.

That kind of quick juxtaposition is one of the recurring attractions of the Saxon Tales; Cornwell is a canny builder of characters and a very skillful disseminator of the large amount of research that backs up these books, but he’s also a gruesomely talented splatterer of grime and gore. By this point in his career, it’s become both a signature trait and something of a compulsion; no matter what the scene, if violence threatens, you know you’re going to get the full Cornwell treatment – as when Uhtred’s grown daughter Stiorra takes her father’s great sword Wasp-Sting in order to deal with a priest who’d wanted to rape her:

“Stiorra!” my son whispered.

But my daughter had no pity. I watched her face as she killed the priest and it was hard, merciless and determined. She cut him first, slashing the short-sword to open his scalp and his neck, then to slice his forearms as he tried to defend himself, and her breast and dress were spattered with his blood as she beat him down with two more cuts to the head, and only then did she use two hands on Wasp-Sting’s short hilt to slice hard at his throat. The blade lodged there and she grunted as she hauled it back and across his gullet. She watched as he fell, as his blood spurted to puddle on one of the naked women women running from the goat-god. She watched Aldwyn die and I watched her. It was always difficult to read her face, but I did not see any revulsion at the slaughter she had made, only what look liked curiosity. She even smiled slightly as the priest twitched and made a gurgling noise. His fingers clawed at the little tiles, then he gave a great jerk and was still.

By this point in the Saxon Tales, copious bloodletting, every-so-slightly anachronistic profanities, and intriguing political maneuvering are as much a part of the program as ring-mail and body odor, and it can be confidently predicted that fans of the series will gobble up this latest chapter. Newcomers are advised to start at the beginning (2004’s The Last Kingdom), when Alfred the Great is just a young boy and none of our main characters has yet eviscerated anybody of consequence.