Meh, it's fine. Well-written, as good as the first book. I think ultimately not for me... while I like historical fiction I prefer character-driven story (think Clavell) where history serves as a backdrop for the real stars - great characters. The characters here are fine, they're just not that uniquely defined or interesting. And like Wouk's Winds of War they have a remarkable and too-frequent habit of coincidentally showing up at key turning points in history and running into world leaders while wandering in the woods. As a device it's interesting to essentially follow a guide who walks you through the events of the time, but the suspension of disbelief distracts me - but may not bother others. I greatly preferred Giles Kristian's awesome six-part norseman series set in a similar time (but character oriented and not handcuffed by needing to connect the historical dots).
I don't even know how to begin reviewing this book, so I'll just say that it's so good, so well written that I'm reading through the whole series. If you love stories of war, strong male warriors mixed with some humor then you'll like these books by Cornwell. I watched the BBC TV series before reading these books and of course the two don't line up my perfectly, but so what. They never do so don't expect it. It was good to watch it first to give you a good picture in your mind of the words in the book. As mentioned in other reviews, the violence is graphic. War is a very unpleasant thing. The author is very clear on what parts of the book are based on his researched historical documents and what parts he took artistic liberty with.
Cornwell has done it again. Brilliant story telling. I don't know the history of the Saxons, Wessex, King Alfred or Uhtred but I do know that Cornwell can dissect the history, insert fiction in a believable reenactment of the tale that successfully puts me right in the action. The characters are multidimensional with lives that matter (to the story) and are filled with joy, misery, triumph, pain, pride, piety, heroism, cowardice and more. Cornwell puts you into the mind of Uhtred who sees the world in a very practical, if not sometimes simplistic way. He's got a complicated life but he approaches it with a straightforward point of view, kill your enemies and spare your friends. His friends and enemies can sometimes be more a more fluid grey than distinctly black and white so the reader is always on the lookout for the next betrayal. In the end you may predict that the hero will survive and his side will win but how you get there is an unpredictable rollercoaster ride that Cornwell is a master at building. This is an outstanding book and I highly recommend it. Start with the first book, "The Last Kingdom" and read from the beginning. This is hours of inexpensive entertainment.
Uhtred Ragnarson is a divided man. He was a Saxon, born in 9th century Northumbria, at a time when England was regularly being raided by the viking Danes. He grew up in a time of warfare and learned to fight at his father's side, which is where he was when his father was killed by Danes in battle. Uhtred was still a child but he fought so savagely against his father's killers that he impressed Ragnar, their leader. Instead of killing him, Ragnar captured and eventually adopted him, and so the Saxon boy grew up as a Dane.
Uhtred was fully Dane in his culture. He admired the Danes and loved his adoptive family. He received his post-graduate course in fighting from them and so he learned both the Saxon way and the Danes' way of battle. It was to serve him well in later years.
We meet Uhtred here as a brash and arrogant twenty-year-old, cocksure of his own strength and his power to overcome all enemies. Not a pleasant bloke. Not the guy with whom you'd want to sit down and have a cup of tea.
In spite of the fact that he loves the Danes and considers himself one of them, Uhtred is still a Saxon and still hopes to reclaim his family lands in Northumbria. In his pursuit of that goal, he aligns himself with Alfred of Wessex. He gives Alfred his oath. He will fight against the Danes.
By the ninth century, the Saxons, Uhtred's people, had taken most of the territory of the future England from the Britons and the Welsh. They had, in fact, held most of the land for hundreds of years. It had been divided into seven different Saxon kingdoms, but by the 870s when the action of this novel takes place, all those kingdoms had fallen to the Danes one after the other until only Wessex and its king, Alfred, were left standing.
This Alfred is, of course, the one who will later be known to the English as "the Great" and in this book we catch glimpses of why he may have come to earn that name. Alfred is a sickly man, who suffers greatly from intestinal complaints. He is a Christian and he wants all of his kingdom to be Christian. His strongest character trait may be his stubbornness. He refuses to give up even when greatly outnumbered. He insists that God is on his side and so he cannot be defeated.
Uhtred has difficulty gaining and staying in Alfred's favor because he is not a Christian and has no desire to become one. He follows the gods of the Danes, carrying an amulet of Thor's hammer around his neck. Moreover, he has taken up with a pagan woman, a Briton, who some believe to be a witch. All this while he is still married to a Saxon woman with whom he has a son.
Cornwell spends a good bit of time in The Pale Horseman developing the relationships and the personalities of his characters, but he doesn't stint on the blood and guts when it comes to the descriptions of battles and of the hardships that Alfred and his few followers have to endure while they are stuck for a time in a swamp. He gives vivid descriptions of shield wall warfare - much of which my eyes glided right over, frankly - and he gives us balanced perspectives from both the Saxon and the Danish viewpoints.
What he doesn't give us is a feminine viewpoint, but then women had very little to do with Cornwell's tale. It makes one wonder where all those hardy men came from.
The Pale Horseman is a rousing good adventure tale of masculine derring-do for those who enjoy the genre. Plus, it has the advantage of being based on actual events. It gives us a window into the time when England as we know it today was just becoming a possibility. It was mostly because of the man called Alfred and perhaps of warriors not unlike Uhtred Ragnarson.