Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Lords of the North

I’m so glad to be living now instead of the 9th century, especially if it were England. I'd be totally unemployable; too soft-hearted to be a fighter, not noble-born, can’t do farming – allergies. At the first sign of Viking raiders I’d trip over fleeing, get hacked to death or sold into slavery.

I was taken there for 12 hours listening to The Lords of the North, 3rd book in the Saxon Chronicles by Bernard Cornwell. It’s available as an unabridged audiobook read by the most guilty pleasure Richard Armitage. Come on, of course that's why we're here. Who else would I skip 2 books for? Not that anyone recommends skipping. At minimum read or listen to book 2 The Pale Horseman before tackling book 3 otherwise names and events will just go over your head. You won’t realise what you’ve missed. This review contains spoilers from the 1st and 2nd book in the series. (But I don't think they're huge ones. It's LOTN that's got the big plot twists.)

Don't read the blurb on (audio)book 3. There are MASSIVE spoilers.

Sloth has been my biggest sin since discovering tv. I was a bookworm child and don’t know why I wasted effort reading when I could have just let someone else do the imagination work for me. Historical fiction is perfect for audiobook with so many different accents and characters. If you've seen Richard in Cbeebies you know he can make himself sound unrecognisable.

My partner once suggested that much of Richard’s appeal comes from his voice. “It’s very deep and soft,” he said. See? It's practically a universally acknowledged truth. Listening to LOTN felt like a personal experience, and by the end of 10 tapes it felt like I'd gotten to know him from eavesdropping on him rehearsing a play. He dramatizes more than other people do in their recordings.

The series recounts the experiences of Uhtred, a Northumbrian child raised by the Viking Danes. At the start of LOTN Uhtred is furious, vengeful and 21 years old. If only I could write Guy of Gisborne fan fictions like Uhtred’s tale. So much repressed anger and violent ambition to reclaim lost property. Both are outsiders grudgingly sworn to manipulative men they hate. It’s their differences that show Uhtred to be the better man though. He’s utterly desensitized to violence but has kept his conscience.

“All anger and threat, my grim Uhtred.”

Threats indeed. Sometimes you'll wish he’d just shut up about who he’s killed and who he wants to kill. Him and his stupid fearsome reputation. In such barbaric times massacre was an honest day’s work. In fact, I’ve made a resume for Uhtred below based on books 1 and 2. How employable would he be today? You wouldn’t want to get between him and his morning coffee.

There was an OMG moment trying to write this blog entry. Whenever I tried to think about character development my mind just went blank for ages. Then it came to me, there was none! Ok that's an exaggeration, but LOTN is a plot driven page turner, and Uhtred is hardly the sort to self-analyse or get introspective. It reads like very violent young adult fiction. I got really fond of Uhtred though. At times he's just as cruel as his enemies but it's how he treats women and children that shows his softer side.

"Your arrogance blinds folk to your kindness."

Maybe watching period drama stuff has ruined my appreciation for fast paced action blockbusters. I'm not asking Uhtred to have a cup of mead and talk about his feelings, but is it too much to ask for a little self-questioning? Of course it's out of character; he's not particularly self-aware. If he came in for an interview showing off that resume I'd sit him down and this is how it'd go:

Me: I see you have lots of marauding and pillage experience. Tell me, how do you feel the loss of your father and older brother has affected your relationship with other men in your life?
Uhtred: ...What did you say?
Me: For example King Alfred. Sometimes he's like a disapproving father figure.
Uhtred: That hypocritical pious fool. I won him back his kingdom and all he ever talks about is repenting for my sins! I'm a descendent of Odin and proud of it. Do I have the job? I killed a Lothbrok you know. It's written there under 'Kingdom of Wessex' experience.
Me: Yes, very good. It's interesting that you're so forgiving.
Uhtred: I am?
Me: I wonder if it's to do with the Danes raising you as one of their own when they should have killed you. Or from your conflict of loyalty between your rightful King and the Danes who made you the fearsome warrior you've become.
Uhtred: Stop your spells, sorceress! How do you know me so well? *Unsheaths Serpents breath from scabbard* What is it you want with me?
Me: Nothing! Just a deep-and-meaningful that's all. Here, take my silver earrings. Please don't kill me. I wouldn't look good on your resume!

The swirling external conflicts induce internal struggle in Uhtred for he has a foot in every camp, and the unification of England makes a grand sweeping backdrop to his personal journey. It would have made momentous reading if the battles won with shield walls and axes were reflected in Uhtred coming to terms with his own inner demons. Why did I have expectations of character development for a violent action packed story such as this? What made me want a deep and meaningful with the protagonist? Usually people just switch off the brain when there's going to be fights and explosions.

My theory is that Richard's dramatising has done for Uhtred what it did for Guy of Gisborne. He gives the character such a pained and angsty internal voice that you'll get lulled into believing Uhtred more emotionally complex than he really is. Maybe that's why one part of me asked the question about character development but had no answers?! Perhaps it's wishful thinking. Perhaps I'm just dense. Perhaps it'll come later in the series. If violence and historical fiction is your thing, then I recommend the whole series. If not then stick to the audiobook versions of The Pale Horseman followed by LOTN.


bZirk said...

I think I need to permanently check funny, interesting and cool. :D

Well done! I love this line and it's so true:

"Maybe that's why one part of me asked the question about character development but had no answers?!"

Nat at RA FanBlog said...

Wow! Scary. Why am I tempted to suddenly check out this audiobook now? Darn that Richard and his audio dramatizations!
By the way, I love the resume. :)

Starheart said...

Thanks Bzirk and Nat,

Yeah, i really recommend the two audiobooks. It's good to listen to in the car or during ironing etc. You might find yourself desperate to listen more than you planned for in each sitting. It's a real action blockbuster! I enjoyed it much more than expected.

Mulubinba said...

I've looked for ages to see if I can get this but it has been a fruitless effort!! I think we have to ring the BBC shop to order and I'm afraid international phone calls to the UK are not attractive to me at this point in time ....... not even to hear RA's voice..... gasp .... did I really write this?

Starheart said...

Mulubinba I borrowed my copy from the local library. If your local doesn't have it they can get it as an inter-library loan. The problem is you have to return it! I've reborrowed this copy several times. :)

mulubinba said...

Thanks Ragtag - I'll check the City library to see if they have it!

Avalon said...

I did not know about this book...Will have to order it too

jeanlin said...

I've only just found this blog. LOTN is wonderful...get your hands on it anyway you can. I have ordered several copies from BBC Audio books ...very helpful people at the other end of the phone.