Monday, May 5, 2014

The Pagan Lord by Bernard Cornwell

Bernard Cornwell has been writing the Warrior Chronicles, also called the Saxon stories since 2004. Seems every two years he comes out with another one. I was inspired this time around to purchase the book well ahead of the trades which I usually get, in Kindle format, due to the History Chanel's showing of Vikings. Love that show and with the recent season two end, I wanted something more.

And The Pagan Lord delivers. Bernard Cornwell tells a first person account very well. It makes this book an easy page turner and a book I finished in less than a day.  The story chronicles the account of Uthred, a noble raised by Danes who worships the old gods, Thor and Odin among others, but finds himself fighting for the Christians who often turn against him as soon as they're able. The constant struggle for a place of his own in a land where Thor and Christianity have little tolerance for one another is well told.

Uthred, despite his advancing age, despite his military mind, despite his own previous experiences, still finds himself in trouble with the Church of England. Still finds himself with treachery on all sides. Still finds himself tried and tested at every opportunity. And he does not emerge from these contests whole and undamaged. He does not win every engagement.

It's these tests, these throws of the dice, these moments of doubt, that make Uthred such a great character. Sure, he has a solid cast about him. Certainly he has worthy friends and a growing family. But it's his own intrinsic character that isn't always right, that brings the book into a higher place than just an action historical tale.

Bernard has a great command of language. When Uthred sails for examples, you can feel the freedom that Uthred feels. You can see the joy he takes in the voyage itself. When he speaks of his foes and their fighting prowess, even when he's weary of them, you still get that feel of distinct confidence that Uthred tends to radiate.

If you, like me, have enjoyed Vikings and want a little more, start off with The Last Kingdom which runs for $9.27 in trade paperback format or $8.81 in Kindle format.

Below I'll be discussing several bits from The Pagan Lord that might be useful for role playing games. Some of this will probably hit themes and tones I've mentioned before because Bernard Cornwell does reinforce themes and mood with repetition throughout the novels. It creates a sense of returning home after not reading one of the novels for a while.

1. Family: Uthred has two sons. One of them, the eldest, decides to become a priest. Due to Uthred's hatred of Christianity, he disowns his son, calling him instead 'Judas'. At the end of the book, Judas comes along to help Uthred in a battle that helps set the tone of England from that day forward. His younger son however, displays more traits similar to Uthred including a thirst for battle and extraordinary skills in combat. Family is more than just characters to be taken prisoner or killed off to encourage a mood or theme. They should be used as their own characters that have their own motives and goals.

2. Action-Reaction: In Uthred's disgust at his eldest son's priesthood, in the scuffle against the priests there, he kills one of them. This leads to the villagers destroying Uthred's property and being an outcast. For every action, there is a reaction.

3. Misinformation: One of the things I appreciate about Bernard Cornwell's writing, is that he does an excellent job of showcasing how slowly information moves. By providing misinformation in several areas, enemies can become powerful. By countering that with his own misinformation and sleight of hand, Uthred is able to sow confusion and disorder against his foes. This is a bigger problem in high-fantasy games where the essence of them is taken mainly from modern day eras in terms of near instant communication or ability to discover facts quickly. Use misinformation where possible and don't automatically counter the player's attempts at doing so.

4. The Glory of Rome: Britain is saturated with old stone and marble ruins from the time of Rome. The natives generally don't like them, melting the marble down to make lime and using the stone to build other types of fortifications when possible. Uthred sees the glory of these ancient statues and bridges and wonders what the hell happened. How did the world descend so far from that glory? While I'm actually pretty tired of ancient empires having greater technology, magic, and well, everything than their modern counter parts, it is refreshing to see how the people living in those times might react to those remnants when they're not discussing super powered magic swords and magic.

5. Historical Accuracy: Despite the skill and knowledge base that Bernard Cornwell has in terms of the Vikings and their era, he isn't afraid to change historical events in order to tell a better story. Unless you are playing some weird game where outside agencies are enforcing documented events, don't be afraid to let the players influence what happens and how things move around the world. The History Channel's show Vikings for example, is full of things that are historically wrong but it's a fine piece of entertainment.

6. Failure: Uthred's initial plan is to conquer his homeland, a mighty fortress with stealth and surprise. That fails. He does manage to capture his nephew and said nephew's mother mind you and they come in handy at other junctures, but the initial raid itself is a failure and it is not the only failure that Uthred suffers. Having a "what if" mentality in terms of designing your scenarios can help you quickly keep the game moving. Don't let the game stall when the characters fail but rather have something else for them to quickly move to.

The Pagan Lord is well told and provides a lot of inspiration for those who want to take their reading a Viking. The Pagan Lord is currently $7.99 in Kindle format and a little under $22 in hardcover.