WHY I LOVE BERNARD CORNWELL
WHY I LOVE BERNARD CORNWELL
Those of you who read my blogs or are my Facebook or Goodreads friends know how much I love Bernard Cornwell’s historical fiction. Since he has a new novel out, The Flame Bearer, which may be his best one yet, I thought this would be a good time to discuss why I find his books so compelling.
In 2011, National Public Radio asked me to select the five best historical novels of that year and write an article in which I explained my choices. I soon selected Margaret George’s Elizabeth I, Paula McClain’s The Paris Wife, Geraldine Brooks’ Caleb’s Crossing, and Alice Hoffman’s The Dovekeeper. The fifth book proved to be more of a challenge. I was familiar, of course, with BC’s writing; I’d loved his Sharpe series, set during the Napoleonic Wars, and enjoyed his Grail Quest trilogy. But somehow I’d not gotten around to reading any of the books in his Saxon series, possibly because I knew very little about this period in British history. As it happened, he’d just published a new book in this series, Death of Kings, and I decided this was worth checking out.
My only concern was that Death of Kings was the sixth book in the series and I needed to be sure it could be read as a stand-alone, too. I’ve often been down this particular road, doing a trilogy about Wales and England in the thirteenth century, and what Barbara Peters of the Poisoned Pen once called “Sharon’s five book trilogy about the Angevins.” It is a tricky balancing act, for you are writing for two audiences, new readers who know nothing of what came before and those readers who know enough that you risk boring them with too much repetition. So it was with some hesitancy that I settled down with Death of Kings.
I need not have worried; I was riveted from the very first page. I soon realized that BC had created a unique character in Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a man who could be courageous, reckless, insightful, stubborn, sardonic, generous, vengeful, and playful—sometimes all in the course of a single day. By the time I’d finished Death of Kings, I was utterly captivated by Uhtred, and real life then came to a screeching halt as I hastened to order all of the earlier books in the Saxon series. Book lovers know that the only joy greater than discovering a new writer is finding that this writer has a healthy backlist waiting to be read. So for those of you who have not yet encountered Uhtred, you have hit the literary lottery. BC has written ten novels about Uhtred, his kings, his women, and his enemies: The Last Kingdom, The Pale Horsemen, The Lords of the North, Sword Song, The Burning Land, Death of Kings, the Pagan Lord, The Empty Throne, Warriors of the Storm, and now The Flame Bearer. Just be prepared to become a recluse until you read them all.
Before I was fortunate enough to get my first novel, The Sunne in Splendour, published, I’d been a lawyer, which I considered penance for my sins. I am going to draw upon my legal background now, though, to make the case that Bernard Cornwell is the best historical novelist of our time.
What makes his novels so special? Well, he is a master wordsmith. He can make his words sing or snarl and he can conjure up images so powerful that they will burn into the back of a reader’s brain, not to be forgotten. Writing well may seem such an obvious requirement that it is not worth mentioning. But there are many successful writers whose books are plot driven, their prose pedestrian at best. A Cornwell novel has all the elements that readers look for—suspense, action, colorful characters, etc. It will also be sprinkled with small gems, descriptive phrases that soar and make other writers think, “I wish I’d written that!”
Here are a few examples of BC’s lyricism at work. “The sky to the east was molten gold around a bank of sun-drenched cloud, while the rest was blue. Pale blue to the east and dark blue to the west where night fled toward the unknown lands beyond the distant ocean.” Or “They were either fishing or cargo vessels and they rightly feared a sea wolf seething northward with the waves foaming white at her jaws.” And “The drenching dark crept along the valleys on either side of us as a slither of light crackled wicked and sharp across the northern sky.”
What else makes a BC novel so mesmerizing? Historical accuracy is very important to me, both as a writer and a reader, and he never disappoints. His research is thorough and yet it never gets away from him, always a risk for historical novelists. When I read of a bygone age, I want to know how the people lived, what they wore and ate and believed, but these facts need to be stitched seamlessly into the fabric of the story—the way threads are woven into a tapestry until a pattern eventually emerges. BC’s tapestry tells us of a time when the Son of God was challenging the old Norse gods, a time when warrior kings and lords fought for supremacy and history hovered at a cross-road; would England be pagan or Christian, Danish or English, united or split into numerous petty kingdoms?
As important as it is for a historical novel to have a solid factual foundation, that alone is not enough. It must also have characters who are three-dimensional, vivid, memorable. The major protagonist in the Saxon series towers above them all like the Colossus of Rhodes. Uhtred is uniquely positioned to understand the wars between Saxons and Danes. He is Saxon himself, the son of a Saxon earl, who was abducted as a child and raised by the Danes. He does not love the Christians or their God, but he is a man of honor and fights for them because he’d given his oath to King Alfred and then to Alfred’s daughter, Aethelflaed.
He is also a man of violence, a lethal warlord who glories in the fame he has won in the shield wall and on battlefields soaked in blood. He is cynical, sarcastic, and impulsive. He is often his own worst enemy, realizing that he would be foolish to insult a Danish raider, to alienate a king, to offend a bishop with his notorious lack of tact. Almost every time, though, he then goes ahead and does it anyway. Definitely a man with flaws, but BC makes us care so deeply for him that those flaws don’t matter; we are always willing to forgive him even when his foes do not.
He is surrounded by other characters who seem very real to us, even those we find loathsome or contemptible. We do not always like King Alfred; I certainly did not. But we understand, as Uhtred does, that Alfred’s vision is a powerful one, the dream of a country called England. We mourn for those who die and rejoice when others survive. Uhtred’s world becomes our own, at least for three hundred pages or so, and when we finish that last page, we feel a sense of loss.
Another of BC’s strengths is how well he writes of women. As strange as it may sound, some publishers continue to harbor an odd bias—the belief that male authors cannot write convincingly of women and vice versa. I’d never encountered this bias myself, but I have writer friends who’ve not been as fortunate. For anyone who still clings to this outdated notion, read one of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon novels. Meet the women who matter to Uhtred. Gisela, beguiling and bold, the love of his life. Stiorra, his daughter, who proves that the apple does not fall far from the tree. The courageous Abbess Hild, who loves God and Uhtred. The sorrowful Welsh shadow-queen, Iseult. His women need not be sympathetic to be unforgettable. There is his sultry bedmate, Skade, whose capacity for cruelty is horrifying, and Brida, his childhood friend and lover, who turns into a monster in the course of the series. Or Aethelflaed, whose youthful joy is leached from her soul by the burdens of queenship and a wretched marriage. BC breathes life into each and every one of these disparate women and when they are on-stage, even Uhtred finds it hard to compete with their star power.
I’ve already mentioned one of the other strengths of the Saxon series books, but it is worth stressing. BC is very good at the sharp-edged male banter that is the coin of their realm and Uhtred’s sardonic sense of humor is a wicked delight, often surfacing at the most unlikely times. Any book that can make me laugh aloud goes at once to my Favorites List.
Lastly, there are the battles. I’ve often said that no writer in the world does better battle scenes than Bernard Cornwell. George R.R. Martin, no slouch himself at spilling blood, agrees with me. So does any writer who has ever turned his or her hand at fighting a fictional battle and then reads one of BC’s books.
When we frequently write about battles, we must constantly look for ways to make each battle fresh and original. When I had to fight a battle in the Llyn Peninsula between the Welsh prince, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, and his brothers, Owain and Davydd, I went to the Caernarfonshire Archives for help, as almost nothing was known of this particular battle. They dragged out maps and translated several passages for me, and then I drove out to explore the battlefield for myself. I’d been very pleased to find a river on the map, thinking I could let some of the soldiers drown when they tried to flee. Much to my disappointment, I discovered that the river was so shallow a snake could not have drowned in it. But then I saw a sign warning of quicksand. When writing that scene, I resisted the temptation to go hopelessly Hollywood and so my characters merely blundered into the quagmire and then lost all interest in bashing each other until they could get back on solid ground.
My favorite battles are those that were out of the ordinary, for that made them more dramatic and easier to write: the fog at Barnet Heath, the ambush at Tewkesbury, the Lionheart’s encounter with a huge Saracen ship as he sailed for Acre. But BC fights so many battles that he has to invent most of them out of whole cloth, and his imagination never runs dry. Uhtred is always one jump ahead of his foes. Who else would think to use sails in the assault upon an enemy fort? Or beehives? Or horses as a temporary dam to enable his soldiers to ford a river? Uhtred and his alter-ego author could match wits with Caesar, the Lionheart, or Napoleon, with any of history’s most celebrated battle commanders, and more than hold their own.
What he does is all the more remarkable because his soldiers and their wars span so many centuries. Uhtred’s shield wall in tenth century England. The battles of Poitiers and Crecy in fourteenth century France. Richard Sharpe and his Chosen Men at the siege of Badajoz in nineteenth century Spain. He shows us how men fought and what they felt when they were fighting and this alone would make his books well worth reading.
His legions of fans most likely know already that his tenth novel in the Saxon series, The Flame Bearer, was published in the U.K. in October and in the U.S. in November. For writers, it can be challenging to keep a series fresh and innovative, to prevent it from becoming stale and repetitive. Many writers struggle with this, no matter how talented they are. But a few of them not only meet the challenge, they transcend it.
Three of my favorite authors at once come to mind. Dana Stabenow has written twenty Kate Shugak mysteries set in her native Alaska, each one a joy to read. Priscilla Royal has written thirteen medieval mysteries that also defy the passage of time, and in P.F. Chisholm’s eight Elizabethan mysteries about Robert Carey, a real-life cousin of Elizabeth I, he continues to thrive. Their characters are not stagnant or static; they mature and grow, their lives and relationships changing as the years go by. That may be the secret of a successful series; if so, it is one that Bernard Cornwell understands, too. The Flame Bearer, his tenth Saxon novel, in which Uhtred continues his quest to recover his family legacy—Bebbanburg Castle–is as spellbinding as The Last Kingdom, in which we meet ten year old Uhtred for the first time. I am already looking forward to the eleventh book.
January 12, 2017