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Alfred of Wessex has fallen very far down the list of memorable figures for us 21st centurions. Which is a shame, because Bernard Cornwells fictionalized retelling of his story reminds us what a cracking tale it is. There is the vivid drama of a country almost overrun by desperate and violent hordes; there is the debilitating rivalry between kingdoms and dynasties which devils the English; and there is terrible conflict between starving and fighting which means armies have to rush back to their farms often before battles have even begun. And the English, long used to a quiet pastoral existence, have a terrible education in bloody hand to hand fighting which they must learn before they can take on the Danes on even terms.
Cornwell's choice of a narrator is excellent. Not Alfred himself, but a young boy born into the second tier of Anglo-Saxon society, the Ealdormen. This gives us access to the very highest echelons of rule, important in a society where the 'best men' had far more influence and power than ours do. He reminds us of what being an aristocrat used to mean - risky, fraught with tension and intrigue, and quite likely to be lethal unless you were tough and smart. Which fortunately, our protagonist is!
For those who know their Anglo-Saxon history, it is a pretty good rendering of the climactic events of the end of the ninth century. For those who don't know or care so much, it is a cracking adventure with lots of sword-play, reversals of fortune and unexpected twists.
A thoroughly enjoyable read.