When a writer chooses as their lead protagonist an actor and his main theme the theatre, possibilities abound. At first looking at Bernard Cornwell’s new novel “Fools and Mortals” you might dissapointedly think, oh, the creator of Sharpe has finally succumbed to the Tudor period eh? And oh look! He’s writing about Shakespeare, how original. Perhaps it was only a matter of time. But don’t be fooled, as we mortals often are, this is a story of layer and depth. Continue reading “Book Review: Fools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwell.”
Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: HarperCollins (8 Oct. 2015)
First off it’s confession time, I’ve never read a Bernard Cornwell book in my life. So it was a great surprise if not a privilege for Harper Collins to send his new book my way.
Nice job on the cover by the way guys. The whole production is just tops, and I always applaud a publisher that decides to match a cover picture to the era inside. I’m not naming names, but some people should really find the difference between a Napoleonic uniform and an early 18th century one, that’s all, and absolutely nothing to do with Warriors of the Storm. Having admitted my ignorance, I will now qualify that I have of course heard of Cornwell, I am familiar with what people have to say about his writings and know a few people that are fans. All say the best things about his books, and overall everyone seems impressed by his original idea to focus a series on Britain in early Saxon times. Including me.
Fans will know him first because his name is on the front and his photo is in the back, and also by the long and distinguished list of books forever attached to his name. The well known Sharpe series, the Grail Quest series, the Warlord Chronicles which is set at the time of King Arthur… Whenever that was, and not forgetting the Starbuck series which flies somewhat below the radar these days thanks to more popular series’. It’s the thrilling tale of how a barista travels back in time to the American Civil War. Alright no it’s not about that, it’s just about the American civil war.
Most recently though he’s been writing The Last Kingdom Series. Formerly known as the Warrior Chronicles. So far Warriors of the Storm is the 9th instalment of the adventures of Uhtred of Babbenburg (no it’s not the origin of the cake, that’s Battenberg), easily outnumbering his other stuff except for Sharpe.
So what can Cornwell fans look for in this? Strong characters? Yep! Pithy, action packed story lines? You betcha! Lots of men standing dressed in mail with beards under stormy skies in drizzling rain talking about their feelings? Well… sort of.
Seriously, Cornwell knows what he’s doing here, it’s well paced, fast moving and full of violent action, tough guys, bad guys, and backed up by the usual array of strong female enemies and allies most of whom are or where entranced with the hero at some point or another. Actually tough guys doesn’t quite describe most of the characters, who would make most other fictional tough guys dissolve into a sobbing jelly. We should bear in mind that this is an evolving story, and as such others will be better placed to see it in the larger picture, my take is that in long series’ some books focus on different things, this one is driven by the story, the hero and the enemy rather than exploring nitty gritty details and sub characters, allowing a developed character to flex his muscles a little and have some free rein. This is intelligent, unapologetic and gritty writing, yet the prose outside of the rough and tumble dialogue has the natural elegance of an expert storyteller, and there are echoes of the evocative Saxon poems that partly inspired the novel. Uhtred for a start lives in a brutal age were violence and cruelty is fairly normal. He’s a Pagan, but one who reluctantly seems to fight alongside Christians against whom he is supremely bigoted. This element in itself is interesting as old Pagan Britain collides with the ideas that will dominate her religious future until the present times. Uhtred and most of his cohorts are quite willing to kill prisoners, enslave children and take the women home for the lads, or if in a good mood cut off the sword hands of prisoners. Which is what one would expect of an experienced warlord of this time. It’s a characterisation well done, though in truth it raises the question is he any better than the Norsemen he’s fighting? Who is the bad guy really? Is there such a thing? It is all a far cry from the legends of King Arthur.
In this book, Arthur is just a legend and Alfred is dead, that’s King Alfred, and the Kingdom is faced by invasion. A great Norse warlord has gained an alliance with an Irish Chieftain and has come to carve out a kingdom for himself. Uhtred is the only man who can stop them, and must battle old personal enemies as well as the Norse, the enemies of his people to preserve the kingdom. For fans, all the Cornwell hallmarks are there to enjoy, for newcomers… Why are you starting with book nine?