First , my thanks to the responses to my last post that suggested various projects I might become involved with. I may take up some of those suggestions in the future, but for now I'm having plenty of fun taking it easy, at least regarding NWN2. I do have one small personal idea I might follow up, but I'll have to save revealing that until later.
In the meantime, I've been catching up on some reading. The last book I've finished is the latest offering from one of my favorite authors, Bernard Cornwell. The Burning Land is the fifth in what the author estimates will be a seven or eight-book "Saxon Series." I love these books, and if anyone out there is interested in historical fiction set in the Dark Ages, you should really try them out.
The series centers around a 9th-century warlord, Uhtred of Bebbanburg (modern-day Bamburgh Castle near Newcastle). At this time, there was no "England," but rather four major kingdoms - Wessex, Mercia, East Anglia, and Northumbria - and several smaller autonomous entities. These kingdoms were originally (for this period) ruled by the Saxons, but eventually the Vikings came in droves, began settling in the country, and one-by-one began conquering its kingdoms. Within short order, all but Wessex had fallen, and even Wessex, the eponymous "Last Kingdom" of the series' first book, was beseiged on all sides.
In the first book, Uhtred is taken by his father, also called Uhtred, to aid the Northumbrian Saxons against the Vikings in the seige of Eoforwic (modern day York). During that seige, which finally doomed the northern kingdom of Northumbria, the elder Uhtred is killed and his son is captured by a Viking Jarl named Ragnar. For the next several years, the younger Uhtred grows up a Viking, learning their language, their customs, and their battle tactics. As a childhood friend of the warlord Ragnar's son, also confusingly called Ragnar, Uhtred eventually becomes accepted into Viking society and is a full-blown Viking warrior by the time he is twenty. During this time, both Mercia and East Anglia have fallen to the Vikings, leaving only a single kingdom in the hands of the Saxons. Thus does Uhtred as a young warrior come south to Wessex looking for plunder... an event that changes his life.
For it is there that he meets the last Saxon king, Alfred of Wessex. It is this relationship between an unorthodox king and a Vikinized Saxon that defines the rest of the series, and Uhtred manages to be involved in several of the major events of the day.
Overall, Cornwell manages to blend fact - at least what we know - with fiction amazingly well. He takes mere scraps of sentences or lists of names found in ancient chronicles and weaves an amazing narrative out of them that bring real life to dusty historical figures.
Alfred of Wessex - now called Alfred the Great - is comparatively unknown today, but he is a seminal king that preserved the island as a non-Viking land and was the first to truly have a vision of a united England, one land for all the Saxons. Unlike the other Saxon kings of Northumbria, Mercia, and East Anglia, he understood the nature of the threat, was willing to use as many carrots as he did sticks in his diplomacy, and also instituted a number of military and civil reforms that ended up frustrating the Viking would-be conquerors.
He was also the first intensely-Christian English king, and many of his advisors - much to the chagrin of the pagan Uhtred - were priests and bishops. Further, he demanded that his nobility learn to read and write - another annoyance to Uhtred - but essential for clear communication by letter instead of relying on couriers to relay messages correctly. Finally, he was sick for most of his adult life, and he flirted with death on-and-off for several decades. All-in-all, Alfred was not the image of a king that could withstand the Vikings, but resist them he did, and better than anyone else.
I have some minor quibbles with Cornwell's depiction of Alfred, but overall I think he is fair, and he's certainly a compelling character. Other historical characters fare worse. Cornwell openly admits that he murders the character of Aethelred II, the King/Ealdorman of Mercia and one of Alfred's vassals. Aethelred comes across as weak, conniving, and intensely resentful of Alfred, his overlord and father-in-law. On the other hand, Aethelred's wife - and Alfred's daughter, Aethelflaed, is an amazingly complex character who starts in the shadows but eventually gains strength of purpose. Although she isn't there yet in the books, history tells us that she will rule Mercia alone after her husband's death. We can certainly see Cornwell establishing that strength as the narrative goes on.
Then there are the various real-life Viking warlords, with colorful names such as Guthrum the Old and Ivar the Boneless, that come and go throughout the narrative, and I am constantly surprised how even minor characters, such as a mayor of Lunden (modern day London) or a bishop in Alfred's court, turn out to be real historical figures. Bishop Asser, for example, is one of Uhtred's main antagonists in the novels, despite their ostensibly being on the same side.
Cornwell uses his fictional protagonist, Uhtred, simply to illustrate what would be typical for the era, for he shares many common characteristics with protagonists from some of his other series. He is, I admit,the kind of hero that guys would find more appealing than women - although "hero" might be too loose a term; maybe "antihero" is more apt. Uhtred thinks often of war, glory, treasure, and of leading legions of men. His primary dream is to one day be so rich and powerful and have so many warriors under his command, that he can return to Bebbanburg, storm the impregnable castle, kill his uncle (who took over after Uhtred's father's death), and reclaim his lands. His honor - in the form of oaths - is paramount to him. He curses and fights for the smallest of reasons. He beds down a series of women, most of them beautiful and few of which he cares for. He is an absentee father, although this isn't unusual for the nobility of the era, and he openly despises his eldest son, who he claims is weak and shows no inclination to war. He's a religious hypocrite. He openly mocks the Christian god and occasionally goes out of his way to torment his followers, but when he's in a tight space, he's not above throwing a quick prayer his way "just in case." He kills people in cold blood - even unarmed ones - simply because they lie to him or otherwise get in his way. He does all this and yet, somehow, Uhtred has just enough honor and "goodness" - not to mention a wicked sense of sarcasm - that I like him. Objectively, he sickens me and yet I can't help rooting for him.
Cornwell has really done a lot of research into the era, and never does he shine more than when he depicts battles. Whether the battles are major engagements, such as Ethandun, or smaller skirmishes between a handful of men, you can practically smell the blood, sweat, urine, and fear. If you want to know what it is to stand in a shield wall and stare down a hoard of Vikings, this is about as close as you'll get.
But Cornwell's historical detail extends beyond battles. His is a haunting description of Lunden, a city at this time replete with Roman architecture - the splendors of a bygone era - and thatched huts. There are humorous moments when the Britons admit they can't understand how the old Roman floor heating works... and so they just build a fire in the middle of the marbled hallway. Additionally, Cornwell gives vivid accounts of crossing the seas in a Viking longboat, and it's obvious that he's spent quite a bit of time researching the whys and hows of Norse seamanship. Architecture, agriculture, art, diplomacy... small historical details are thrown off seemingly at will as characters "in the moment" think of them as if they are normal, which for them they are.
Cornwell's writing style is not complex; it'll never be mistaken for Shakespeare, but it gets the job done. It's perfect for brain-candy. Or maybe slightly above; there is some educational value here - actually there's a lot of educational value here if you're the type to pay close attention to the details - but it can be equally enjoyed entirely as an action-hero story set in Dark Age Britain. In that sense, Cornwell's style is masterful.
For the record, the five books thus-far published in this series are (1) The Last Kingdom, (2) The Pale Horseman, (3) Lords of the North, (4) Sword Song, and (5) The Burning Land. Check them out; they really are addicting.