For around twenty years, I have listed Bernard Cornwell as one of my favourite authors. The other month I finished reading Death of Kings, the latest instalment in his ‘Saxon’ series which is worth a read if you like novels that you can come away from with the feeling that you’ve actually learned something interesting as a result of having read them.
Bernard Cornwell’s novels usually centre around an honest man of action who has little time for political scheming, and in this series the hero/narrator is Uhtred, a Saxon who was brought up as a Viking but who fights (somewhat reluctantly) for Alfred the Great, King of Wessex and the one man standing between the Vikings and their goal of dominating all of Britain. This has formed the basis of the series so far, but in this sixth novel the focus changes as Alfred is dying, various would-be successors are getting ready to make their bids for power and the fragile truce between Wessex and the Vikings is about to fall apart.
Alfred the Great has somewhat fallen out of favour with whoever decides what should be part of the history curriculum in schools (in which there’s a big gap between the Romans and 1066), even though his story is integral to the formation of what would come to be England. But Cornwell’s Alfred is no warrior king. His take on Alfred as a sickly scholar who is very much the ‘brains behind the operation’ is an good one, and having the narrator as a pagan – in contrast to the pious Alfred – allows the author to explore more fully the struggle between Christianity and paganism that he started on in the Warlord trilogy – a reinterpretation of the Arthurian legends which I still think is Cornwell’s best work. I think there’s a touch of the pagan in Cornwell, as the Christians of his stories are portrayed in a rather negative light. Although it clearly inspires some of the characters to do great things, organised religion is portrayed here as a force for intolerance, pomposity and repression (over the course of Death of Kings, Uhtred manages to infuriate and poke fun at several clergymen to good comic effect). In a sense, therefore, there’s something very modern about these books even though they’re set in the Dark Ages.
One of Cornwell’s more shorter works is the blurb that features on the cover of every edition of every Simon Scarrow novel, in which he is quoted as saying ‘I really don’t need this kind of competition’. Simon Scarrow has been around for over a decade now, during the course of which he has produced the ‘Eagle’ series of novels about Macro and Cato, a pair of Roman soldiers who, although initially mismatched (bluff veteran and younger, more thoughtful man who is mentored in the ways of soldiering by said veteran) become firm and trusted friends. Their adventures have taken them to various parts of the Roman Empire of the mid-first century AD and supporting characters have included Vespasian, Boadicea, St Peter (I kid you not) and Narcissus, the imperial secretary to the Emperor Claudius who serves as a scheming proto-spymaster who gets our heroes to do his dirty work despite the fact that they’d much rather be doing some good, honest soldiering (shades of Bernard Cornwell here).
No novel set in the past can truly escape the time at which it is written, and this applies to novels about the Romans as much as it does to those about the Saxons. In the former, an all-conquering empire has invaded places like Britannia and Judea but is struggling to govern these unruly provinces, with the locals engaging in guerrilla-type resistance that the highly-disciplined Roman army is unable to deal with as effectively as it can deal with its enemies in a proper battle. As such, some people are coming to the conclusion that it would be better to withdraw from such places. The plot of one of the earlier books, When the Eagle Hunts, centres around the kidnapping of a general’s family by a group of religious fanatics (Druids in this case, but the modern parallel is obvious).
The eleventh and latest in this series, Praetorian, takes us to the heart of Rome itself as our heroes go undercover as ordinary soldiers to join the Praetorian Guard in order to root out a conspiracy against the Emperor. As a result, this is a little different from the other books as Macro and Cato become immersed in espionage and politics. There’s less fighting than usual and more sneaking around and talking in whispers, and when there is fighting it’s in the form of street brawls rather than pitched battles. There are a few points where one gets the impression of this being a thriller that just happens to be set in Ancient Rome – the novel begins with a well-planned heist, and at one stage a couple of characters need to be taken out of the city quickly and someone says he’s got a horse-and-cart in a lock-up down the road that can be used. There are also a few light-hearted moments, such as when Narcissus wonders why there isn’t a (Latin) word for that feeling of superiority you get when you hear of someone else’s misfortune.
The Emperor at the heart of the action is Claudius. Rather like Alfred the Great, we have become accustomed to a certain idea of what he was like as a person. Thanks largely to Robert Graves (author of I Claudius) and Derek Jacobi (who played Claudius in the TV adaptation of Graves’s novel), we think of him as a man who, thanks to a stutter and a pronounced limp, is written off by everyone as a fool, but beneath the bumbling exterior he is in fact very intelligent and he eventually becomes a surprisingly effective emperor. There’s some of that in Scarrow’s interpretation, although his Claudius is more reflective of the Claudius of Suetonius’s The Twelve Caesars – over-reliant on advisers, manipulated by those around him and something of a dirty old man. Waiting to take over is his adopted son, Nero, shown here as a thoughtful youngster rather than the murderous tyrant he would become.
Macro and Cato will return, we are assured, and when they do they’ll be back with the legions in Britannia so it looks as though Scarrow wants to return to the successful formula of his earlier books. In the meantime, his latest novel, due out in paperback later this year, is about an English knight at the siege of Malta. I can’t wait.