As historical fiction series go, Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Tales has in my view been one of the best, and I'm sorry I can't cheer lustily for the final entry. The sad fact is that in order to take the series from its starting point to the point at which Cornwell wanted to end it, Cornwell had to endow both Uhtred and Finan with superhuman powers. Both characters are approximately eighty years old when they fight the climactic Battle of Brunanburh in 937. They don't sit on their horses behind the lines directing the troops, which would have been believable. No, Cornwell has to have Finan defeat a much younger, stronger man in single combat, while he puts Uhtred - eighty-year old Uhtred - in the front rank of the shield wall, from where he kills any number of younger, bigger, stronger men. Oh, and for no good reason, a wonderful character from the first books, Steapa Snotor, returns. He's also about eighty, and leads the Saxon cavalry in a charge at the climactic moment of the battle. Eighty years old, and fighting with a sword from horseback. Come on, this is just silly.
Cornwell knows what he's done, and offers a half-hearted acknowledgement in the notes at the end of the book, comparing Uhtred to Beowulf, who was also at an advanced age when he killed a dragon.
As for the body of the book, it repeats themes that have by now become overused: Uhtred's loyalty is torn between kings; Uhtred thinks he might be fighting on the wrong side; Uhtred leads his men across bleak landscapes palled by smoke as war rages. We've been here before, many times. The well has run dry.
I love historical fiction and have nothing but admiration for Mr. Cornwell. I'm sorry the TV series didn't do a better job of bringing the books to life, but I hope Cornwell made tons of money off of it. But Uhtred, like Muhammad Ali, came out of retirement one too many times for me.
That said, I am waiting with bated breath to see what Mr. Cornwell will start next.