Thursday, 27 November 2014

Tricky Beginnings: THE EMPTY THRONE by Bernard Cornwell

The Empty Throne
I will never forget the day I turned those initial pages and started the very first book in the Warrior Chronicles (Saxon Stories in the US) for the very first time.  It was many years ago now and was the beginning of a wonderful journey for me. 
 I had always been an avid reader. Since I learned to read really, but I had never found my niche fiction genre. I dabbled in fantasy fiction, I dipped my toe in horror, absorbed myself in crime thrillers, but it was not until I forged my way through the historical pretenders quagmire to this series that I finally discovered what I wanted as a reader. I wanted history. Brutal, honest, raw historical tales that smacked of reality. And so, thanks to Bernard Cornwell, I found my love of the historical fiction genre.
I have never looked back. Cliche I know, but true none the less.

There have been eight books in this series (including this one) and while the Warrior Chronicles is one of my two favourite series' of all time, I had started to feel a little jaded with it. To me, the two books preceding The Empty Throne had little originality. They felt like the same story and the same formula done to death. 
The Empty Throne broke that monotony for me. It was completely unique to all the books that went before it. We delved new characters, got to know evolving characters, and observed relationships between certain characters like we never have before. 
We saw Uhtred, not as the brutish and diabolical warrior many of us know and love, but as the victim of that which felled him so bloodily in book seven, The Pagan Lord.

With possibly only one or two books left in this series (from the lips of the author) you know you have come to a milestone with this book as soon as you open it and start reading.
The first book in the series, The Last Kingdom, has one of the most memorable opening chapters of all the books I have ever read. I may not recall it word for word, but I will always remember that first line and the tone of what came after.
To save you getting out your copy of The Last Kingdom to reread it, I shall hand it to you on a platter:
The Last Kingdom (published 2004)

Prologue - Northumbria, AD 866-867
My name is Uhtred. I am the son of Uhtred, who was the son of Uhtred and his father was also called Uhtred. My father's clerk, a Priest called Beocca, spelt it Utred. I do not know if that is how my father would have written it, for he could neither read nor write, but I can do both and sometimes I take the old parchments from their wooden desk and I see the name spelled Uhtred or Utred or Ughtred or Ootred. I look at those parchments, which are deeds saying that Uhtred, son of Uhtred is the lawful and sole owner of the lands that are carefully marked by stones and by dykes, by oaks and by ash, by marsh and by sea, and I dream of those lands, wave beaten and wild beneath the wind driven sky. I dream, and know that I will take back the land from those who stole it from me.
I am an ealdorman, though I call myself Lord Uhtred, which is the same thing, and the fading parchments are proof of what I own.

The Empty Throne starts in a similar vein. Which brought back all those wonderfully nostalgic emotions that have stayed with me since that long ago day when I first began this series:

The Empty Throne (published 2014)

My Name is Uhtred. I am the son of Uhtred, who was the son of Uhtred, and his father was also called Uhtred. My father wrote his name thus. Uhtred, but I have seen the name written as Utred, Ughtred or even Ootred. Some of those names are on ancient parchments which declare that Uhtred, son of Uhtred and grandson of Uhtred, is the lawful, sole and eternal owner of the lands that are carefully marked by stones and by dykes, by oaks and by ash, by marsh and by sea. That land is in the north of the country we have learned to call Englaland. They are wave beaten lands beneath a wind driven sky. It is the land we call Bebbanburg.

But that is where the similarities between the two books start and finish. 

This book is nothing like those before it. The author did not stick to that time worn formula. This is a story more about the setting of chess pieces than the following of a well beaten path. 
It was not without its risks for the author no doubt. There will be a truck load of fans out there who will be disappointed by the lack of formula in this one. 
Many pick up these books thinking they are going to get the same thing each time and they take comfort from that. For me though, I wanted the strategic meanderings that weave in and out of this one's storyline. From the confusing beginnings (make sure you pay attention to the opening chapters, and that opening paragraph, or you will be completely lost for the first thirty I was) to the interesting ending, this book will not tread in the footsteps of others. 

For example, some of Uhtred's children play a large part in this book. And I found that delightful. To have treasured this Uhtred character for so many years, and now to see how much like their father these children have become. I was reminded of Gisella and how she really was his one great love, even though I spent a few books thinking that title belonged to another. I think as this series comes to a close, it was important for Uhtred's relationship with Gisella to be dug up and clarified. To remind us who this woman was that Uhtred fathered such headstrong and beautiful children with.

If you look for them, this book holds codes to unlocking what will happen in the last book/s as this unforgettable and unique series finally winds up the cliffs of Bebbanburg to its unavoidable swan dive..

Five stars out of five.

- MM


  1. I haven't read this yet, but your review has made me move it up my "to read" list. I found the previous book had got a bit worn out, so it is great to see the formula shaken up and something new injected into this fabulous series.

    1. Hi Matthew, sorry for the slow response!
      Give it a go if you felt the same way about where the series had been headed as I did.
      The last couple books were so formulaic, I think many readers drifted from the series. This time, while there are a couple typical formulas applied, I find they are more historical fiction story formulas moreso than Cornwell formulas.