Considering that I've watched all current seasons of The Last Kingdom TV series I didn't cover any new ground in The Pale Horseman by Bernard Cornwell, except to get a better appreciation of how the screenwriters differed from the events that happen in the novel. And I'm going to assume that some of you may have watched the series so are au fait with the general story, so I'm going to mark the start and end of the spoilers so you can skip ahead if necessary.
More is made of Uhtred's pirating up and down the coast when he's put in charge of Alfred's paltry fleet set in place to help keep the Danes at bay. This doesn't even have a mention in the series, and adds an entire new dimension to the character and his background. And of course Uhtred, being Uhtred, decides to do some pirating of his own, which brings him into conflict with a king, and is where he meets Yseult, the shadow queen he takes to be his woman, despite him still being married to the overly pious Mildrith.
The pagan Yseult is a far better match for him, in any case, and I know reading of this duplicity in the man might gall those readers who have sensibilities for happily ever afters and true love, but it must be remembered that this was a vastly different time back then, and notions of romance and fidelity as we recognise it are a fairly recent invention. Take into consideration also that Uhtred was raised by the Danes, who had a vastly different outlook on life from the Christians.
We see Uhtred supporting Alfred in his darkest moment, despite the strong temptation to go over to his brother Ragnar. And I have to admit that the battle scene right at the end was so well realised, I was nervous despite knowing how it ends in tragedy. So. Much. Tension.
Also, we see Hilde enter the story. Her friendship with Uhtred is one of the most special, and I am interested to see how this will differ in the books and the series.
END OF SPOILERS
The main theme running through The Pale Horseman is Uhtred grappling with loyalty – he is torn between his Saxon heritage and his Danish upbringing, and this particular story is very much about him striving for sovereignty and yet realising that his goal of regaining Bebbanburg will only come through the swearing of oaths of fealty to one power or another. He is a consummate warrior who has little patience for the complexities of a king's court – which often leads to some delightful interactions. And some small tragedy as Uhtred is his own worst enemy at times.
As always, Cornwell makes the Viking Age with all its rust, blood and strife feel tangible, and his keen observation of people's natures makes this a treat to read. I'm looking forward to the next instalment.