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The Empty Throne, by Bernard Cornwell

Aethelflaed should be a name that trips off the tongue as easily as Boudicca, Elizabeth or Florence Nightingale in any roll call of national heroines. The daughter of Alfred the Great beat the Vikings and helped to forge a united England out of a patchwork of fractured, warring Kingdoms.

She is, however, largely forgotten. Perhaps it’s the profusion of vowels – she gets lost in the confusing mire of Aethel-somethings that precede William the Conqueror. Now Bernard Cornwell, the master storyteller himself, has rescued her story from obscurity. And what a story it is.

The eighth book in Cornwell’s Warrior Chronicles series, The Empty Throne, continues to centre on the fortunes of Aethelflaed’s ally and lover, Uhtred of Babbanburg. The man who rose to prominence under Alfred the Great is older now and slower. His thoughts increasingly turn to his own mortality. His old crew are still with him, and still ferocious and eager to fight the encroaching North men.

But the political landscape is changing. At the end of the seventh book, Uhtred and Aethelflaed won a great victory against the Danes, forcing the old enemy on to the back foot. In this instalment, the Mercians and West Saxons turn inwards, to fight amongst themselves over who should rule Mercia.

Aethelred, Aethelflaed’s estranged husband and ruler of Mercia, is dying with no clear successor.  The neighbouring kingdom of Wessex, ruled by Alfred’s son Edward, has designs on the empty throne.

It is inconceivable that Aethelflaed – a woman! – can take Aethelred’s place, despite her history of beating Danes and leading men. Inconceivable to everyone except Uhtred and Aetheflaed. At stake is King Alfred’s vision of a united, peaceful Englaland [correct, but could switch to modern spelling for clarity].

While the Mercians and the West Saxons wrangle, a new Viking threat is brewing in the West, where the Irish and the Norse play out their own deadly games.

The children of the protagonists in the Warrior Chronicles are grown-up now, and playing their own bigger roles in the story. The Empty Throne begins with a prologue narrated by Uhtred’s son, rechristened with the family name when the older brother who bore it became a Christian priest and was disowned by his irascible father. “My name is Uhtred. I am the son of Uhtred, who was the son of Uhtred, and his father was also called Uhtred.”

For the present, however, the original, indomitable Uhtred is still at the centre of the fighting. He a hero to rival Horatio Hornblower or Cornwell’s own creation Richard Sharpe. This series of novels is to be turned into a BBC drama, which will doubtless enhance Uhtred’s deserved reputation.

He has the attributes we would expect from a hero of his era: a sword, a sidekick and a talent for warfare. But Uhtred is more rounded than the usual run of fictional action heroes. He is seductive and funny. He has a talent for snatching political defeat from victory on the battlefield. A stubborn pagan in a Christian world, Uhtred is arrogant and self-destructive, but unexpectedly soft-centred. His many fans will be praying to Thor that the translation to the small screen does not tame this wild hero.

Uhtred himself may be fictional, but Cornwell draws on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles for his depiction of events in the ninth and tenth centuries. The Aethelflaed he conjures from the scanty facts is convincingly formidable. Known by her people as “The Lady of Mercia”, she was a woman who ruled by force of personality in a man’s world. This lady was definitely not for turning.

The Empty Throne is Cornwell’s best Uhtred tale yet. If there is a throne for writers of this particular type of muscular historical fiction, then Cornwell is firmly wedged in it. And on this evidence, he is not budging.

Published on 23 October by Harper Collins, £20.

Antonia Senior

Antonia’s book, Treason’s Daughter, is published  by Corvus