Book Review: ‘The Saxon Stories’ by Bernard Cornwell

I finally did it. I read all thirteen books in The Saxon Stories, and I’m ready to say my final word about the story as a whole.

First off for those who don’t know, The Saxon Stories is a work of historical fiction, telling the epic tale of Uhtred of Bebbanburg (allegedly the distant ancestor of the author). His story spans the reigns of King Alfred the Great of Wessex, King Edward the Elder, and King Athelstan, the first true King of the English.

As a boy, Uhtred’s family is slain in battle by Danish invaders. His uncle claims lordship of the castle of Bebbanburg despite it legally falling to Uhtred, and then he is kidnapped by a Danish warlord and raised like his son. Throughout his life, Uhtred’s singular goal stays the same: reclaim what is his and kill the usurper, his uncle.

Cornwell is an incredible author. He writes with authenticity and emotion, bringing characters to life. You can almost hear the clashing of swords and the screams of dying men, see the flapping banners of kings and chieftains, in his battle scenes. The tension is palpable in scenes in which the pagan Uhtred stands before a Christian king or lord, his fate laying in their hands as they are told by some to exile or execute him for his sins. All in all I really enjoyed his books.

My only real complaint comes from the length of the series. Thirteen books is a lot to read, and eventually minor characters and places start to blend together. In the last couple of books, some characters die whose names I remember, but I can’t exactly remember their relationship to Uhtred so the emotional punch falls flatter than it might. As Uhtred meets younger warriors who tell him how they fought beside him at this or that battle, I struggle to remember which battle it was.

***Spoiler alert in the next paragraph***

And my biggest complaint has to be how Uhtred manages to recapture Bebbanburg before the series actually ends, at the end of book ten. As a result, the last three books didn’t have anywhere near the tension of the first ten because, well, the overarching storyline was already complete. Uhtred was lord of Bebbanburg again! He’d finally done it! Throughout the first ten books, as it seemed that Uhtred was about to die, I’d think, Oh no, and he never got to reclaim his lands! After that, as death approached Uhtred, I met it with more of a shrug. Meh, at least he got to rule Bebbanburg again.

I’m just not a fan of these extended stories, series that are ten, thirteen, fifteen books long. I just don’t think any story needs to be that long. I can think of four or five of these books that could have been cut and you’d still have an epic tale.

But as I said above, this was overall an excellent work of historical fiction that I enjoyed tremendously. I highly recommend it to fans of the genre. For others, maybe give Book 1 a try. I will say the writing style is told in first person from the point of view of a 9th century Saxon, and the writing can feel a bit… blunt at times. It’s kind of hard to describe, but it’s noticeably different from other books. At least, I felt it was.

There’s also the Netflix series available to watch, which is a fine show but I much prefer the books.


One thought on “Book Review: ‘The Saxon Stories’ by Bernard Cornwell

  1. This sounds like a good series, and I like your point about how it felt like the stakes were gone once he reclaimed his kingdom.

    That said, if I’m going to read a series by Cornwell, I’m going to tackle the “Sharpe” books first. I like the Napoleonic era, so it’s kind of a mystery how I haven’t read them already. šŸ˜€


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