War of the Wolf by Bernard Cornwell (Historical Novel, 2018).
By my count this is the eleventh novel in Cornwell’s sprawling Saxon Tales series. As usual, the main character, Uhtred of Bebbanburg, narrates the book with a keen eye and ever-growing self-awareness. And yet, as ever, he remains dedicated to the cultural imperative central to his adopted Norse religion/worldview. “Destiny is All!”
This series is of course the source material for the hit Netflix show The Last Kingdom. Fans of that show (I highly recommend it, by the way) should be aware that this one takes place in the 920s, considerably later in Uhtred’s life than the TV series has so far reached. Our protagonist, born a Saxon noble yet orphaned and adopted by a Danish Viking leader in the medieval northern English kingdom of Northumbria, is as always caught in the middle of the ongoing and repeated clashes of the region’s principle cultures.
By this time, Uhtred is in his early 60s–beginning to feel his age, yet still an impressive leader and fighter. War of the Wolf finds the premise of the very first books turned somewhat on its head. The Last Kingdom from the series’ starting point was Wessex, which was the last Saxon kingdom in what later would be England to be unconquered by the invading Norse/Danes.
In contrast, as the current novel opens, East Anglia and Mercia have been retaken by Wessex under King Edward (the son of Alfred the Great). Thus, Northumbria is now the last English kingdom ruled by a Northmen (whose King Sigtryggr is at the moment Uhtred’s son in law). Uhtred’s long, even obsessive, quest to regain the ancestral home area was achieved in a previous volume. But there’s to be no rest for the aging but still capable and inspiring leader. And the inevitable forces that make him a focal point in the battle between the two cultures he knows so well aren’t about to let up.
Sigtryggr faces a rebellious newcomer, Skoll, an ambitious Viking driven from Ireland who has resettled in the lawless western fringe of the country (a region already disputed between his Northumbria and the restless Mercia (which Edward recently annexed). Edward is of course an persistent threat, following in his father’s footsteps in his intent to unite all of England under his Saxon rule. And it’s never time to forget the warlike Scots lurking along the northern border.
Edward is presently restrained by a rebellion in Mercia. That abortive uprising, Uhtred’s complicated relations with various characters involved and the schemes of others lead him to intervene there. Meaning that when the new Norse threat to Sigtryggr moves against the Northumbrian heartland, his father in law isn’t immediately available to support him. He’ll pay an especially painful and personal as a result.
The symbol that Skoll, the ruthless new invader, has taken for his flag is a wolf. Hence the title of the novel, though it could have been called the War of the Wolves (since the standard Uhtred’s own men carry is that of another wolf). Thus the single most prominent and immediately dire conflict this time out is a battle of rival Norsemen.
Nearby, Edward is himself grown old, fat and sickly. A behind the scenes power struggle as to who will succeed him as king of Wessex (and thus all of non-Danish England) is already well underway. Whoever wins out will, in time, be bound to attack the land that Uhtred calls home.
As always, Cornwell presents a dense and complex plot with many characters (familiar ones from past books and new, all of them varied and interesting) in fine fashion. He balances competing narratives quite well, and the battle scenes are every bit as appallingly real yet exciting as are the almost nonstop political and personal intrigues.
The brief (3 page) Historical Note following the novel’s climax neatly puts it all into perspective, including reminding readers which elements of the book are fictional and which are historically accurate.
But rest assured: Cornwell’s scholarship combine, as usual, with his authorial skill to make it all feel very real.