In this sequel to The Last Kingdom
, Bernard Cornwell surges ahead with his series on the life of Alfred the Great - furthering the plot, and with clear development in story, characters, and message.
We now see the dark side of series protagonist, Uhtred of Bebbanburg. While skilled in languages, with words, and with his trusty sword Serpent-breath, he is actually not very likeable. He treats his pious wife (who wants him to be a good Christian) and child with disdain. He sets off on one of Alfred's ships, kills and steals, and kidnaps his very own pagan sorceress. I find it admirable that Cornwell made such a disreputable character of his protagonist. Ultimately this serves to make Uhtred more believable (which is perhaps a critique of some characters in Cornwell's other works).
The author magnificently captures the feel of the period. Here you have Saxons trying to defend their country (which they invaded just four hundred years before) against the Danes who all but succeed in their conquest of Britain. Cornwell tells us in his elucidating Author's Note that if it weren't for Alfred's decision, when all seemed lost, to still fight back (and win), that he would be telling this story in Danish. Whether a Saxon, a Dane, or a Briton, identity was something both questioned and sought after in this melting pot of a country - Uhtred is often thought a Dane or a Briton, but not a Saxon, which he considers himself.
At the end when all that remains of Saxon Britain is a small area of marsh in Wessex, Alfred unites his people - who end up banding together from all areas of the surrounding country - and defeats the Danes, making Wessex the one strong remaining Saxon enclave in all Britain. It was with this victory that Alfred earned the title great. The book ends with the hope that Alfred the Great will begin taking back the rest of Britain and pushing the Danes out for good.