Saturday, September 28, 2013

Death of Kings by Bernard Cornwell

I picked this puppy up in hardcover from Barnes & Nobles a while ago and promptly forgot about it. Then I noticed that Bernard Cornwell has the Pagan Lord coming out, another volume in the series and promptly sat down and finished this book in a manner of hours.

Told in first person, this tale of the Danes and Saxons is an enjoyable read that is like visiting old friends that have new tales to share with the reader. I'm always amused when I enjoy a Cornwell book because my first experience with Bernard's writing was Stonehenge and I hated that book. I thought it too long, didn't like the main characters, and didn't think the book went anywhere. Almost everything else I've really enjoyed. The Saxon Stories really appeal to me and I think part of that is the whole first person view point we get from Uhtred. One of the interesting things to me, is that Uhtred is growing old. Rare is the 'action' hero who can claim to be 45 and still standing in a shield wall.

By allowing Uhtred to grow older, it allows time to pass. Which in historical terms is a good thing as it allows change to happen as well, kings die of old age eh? Hence the title of the book and all that. But it also fits in with the theme of much of 'older' times in that campaigning during off seasons was challenging and dangerous. One of the reasons the Mongols were so dangerous after all is that they didn't seem to have a problem with it.

If you're looking for a good read, Death of Kings is up there on the list. I'd recommend the other books in the Saxon Stories prior to this as they build up a lot of background and detail and show how friends emerge from enemies and how allies fall to the wayside.

Now let me muse about things I might steal for a role playing game eh?

Subterfuge: Uhtred is a bit smarter than most of those around him in a number of ways. One of those is that he has longer planning abilities than those about him and sees things in a bigger picture. There are two instances of Uhtred being clever here. The first is when he stages a fight with one of his followers. This leads to his follower eventually coming back with a ton of information on what the people he's been spying on have been doing. This is a fairly standard operation in faking a fight with a friend and having that friend do some undercover work.

The second one though is a nice little bit. Earlier in the book, Uhtred seeks out an Oracle who tells the future. This oracle is why the Saxons are so fearless in their assaults. Their victory has been preordained. Uhtred then sets up a Christian miracle with a cave and angels and a seer predicting the victory of the Danes. It works well and in a low tech, superstitious setting, works wonders.

The third is that despite how smart Uhtred is, he's not infailable and when one of his resources, a spy master who essentially works for everyone comes and spreads some lies to him, because of the very convincing nature in which he does it, Uhtred believes it and is almost killed because of it.  It's good to see that despite his gifts, Uhtred isn't above failure and what's good for the goose is good for the gander.

The Death of Kings. There are a few things I enjoyed about the way Bernard Cornwell described the whole scene here. The first is that things have to keep going on. Dishes still have to be washes, clothes still have to be cleaned, and the sun still rises in the east. The momentous occasion in and of itself does nothing for the rest of the world. The other part was the planning and burial and resources needed to bury the king. This included having the king put into three separate coffins like nesting cups as well as developing a new church for it and waiting till all the people important to the process could be assembled. Without modern transportation, some of the people took days or longer to get to the funeral.  

Too many leaders. One of the problems I often have with super hero comics, and indeed, most role playing settings, is that there are so many villains of such overwhelming power that one has to wonder, "Seriously, why haven't they gotten their shit together and just curb stomped the heroes." Well, history has proven again and again, that just because you have the force to do something doesn't mean you have the will to do it or the ability to do it behind one central figure.

Bernard notes several times that there was real opportunity after the death of Alfred to smash the Danes. The problem is that they have too many people who would be leader. Too many potential back stabbers. Too many potential enemies in waiting. When one moves forward, the rest would follow or take that one's lands and wealth for their own?

There are numerous other bits I like and would try to add into my own material. For example, there are few clear cut 'heroes' and 'villains' so to speak. There are loyalties to tribes, there are loyalties to each other, there are those seeking to expand their own circle of power even if it pits them against family members and those seeking to reclaim ancestral lands but it's all more subtle that Dungeons and Dragons alignment system normally allows. It makes things more interesting in that you don't have a wall of paladins who due to their nature are never going to betray someone unless 'magic' or some massive misunderstanding is involved. It allows things to progress as a more organic fashion.

In the end, I'm looking forward to the Pagan Lord, the next volume in the Saxon Tales and that's a testament to the strength of Bernard Conrwell's writing.