The Pale Horseman (book two in the Saxon series by Bernard Cornwell) continues the bloody life chronicles of Uhtred of Bebbanburg.
Uhtred is a complex protagonist. He has many traits that are common to heroes in other books: strength, bravery, a vicious brand of loyalty, and a sense of justice that should make him easy to appreciate. Yet he is not always likeable. In fact, I would say I dislike him more often than not--and yet I continue to listen to the story.
The Pale Horsemen starts with Uhtred foolishly drawing his sword on his rival, Ealdorman Odda the Younger, during a religious ceremony, thus offending King Alfred and violating the king's laws. Uhtred is not dumb. He should know better, but his "monstrous pride," as Cornwell describes it, constantly gets Uhtred in trouble. By the end of chapter one, he has committed an unjustifiable murder (both by modern standards and the laws of the time) and put himself and his household in danger of retribution. Why did he commit such a crime? Because he was pissed of and full of, you guessed it, pride.
This is good for moving the plot and keeping "tension on every page," as Donald Maass, author of Writing the Breakout Novel, advocates. It is not good for my feelings about the protagonist. I'd like for someone to take Uhtred in hand and teach him some humanity. Yes, he is essentially a Viking and their moral code at the time of the story is different than mine. Yes, he is true to his character and possesses many positive traits.
I still struggle with the heartless brutality of Uhtred. It is kind of a love-hate relationship with this character that drives me to read on. So in the grand scheme of things, Bernard Cornwell has again proved himself a master writer.
By the end of the novel there is an impressive payoff. Why describe the story arch and character development as a payoff? That makes it sound shady, doesn’t it?
Bernard Cornwell developed all of the characters in this book honestly, except for some of the cookie cutter priests--minor characters without much spine or depth. But I digress.
Uhtred, Son of Uhtred of Bebbanburg, is a twenty-year-old saxon raised from the age of ten by Danes (called Vikings when they are raiding from the sea). He’s seen his father die and fought in the shield wall. Over the years, his survival has depended on his own strength and cunning. He is proud, violent, and a pagan like the Danes who raised him. The tender years of his youth were spent looting churches and killing priests.
Why wouldn’t he be a total barbarian? (I’ve always liked barbarians in stories, but Bernard Cornwell has a talent for showing how brutal life was in the 9th century, regardless of who you were or what God / gods you worshiped.)
By the end of The Pale Horseman Uhtred earned much more of my compassion and made me want to see more of his journey. I cared about the people he cared about, admired his strength and courage, and began to hope he will reclaim his ancestral home of Bebbanburg.
Readers who enjoy George R. R. Martin (The Game of Thrones) or Ken Follet (The Pillars of Earth) won’t go wrong picking up a copy of The Pale Horseman.
Jonathan Keeble does an absolutely brilliant job of narrating the audiobook version. Very highly recommended. In fact, I may see if Keeble has ever read the phone book or the dictionary, because I’d probably listen to them if he did.
Once in a while, I find a trilogy in which the third book is nearly as good as the first. True, there are some writers who improve with each book they write, and as their craft improves and the characters develop, the narrative tension continually escalates. What I have found more common however, is that the first book, or in some cases, the first part of the first book is far better than anything that comes afterward.
I once heard that rock bands spent ten years making their first album, broke out and made it big, then had to do it again in one year. As often as not, second albums are bland, less raw, and full of disappointment. Just saying.
I gave Wool a five-star review and Shift a four-star. Would Dust slide to three-stars? I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best, because time is really all we have and I didn’t want to waste mine.
Good news, dear fellow reader, Dust turned up the dramatic tension and the characters did their thing. The final novel in the Silo trilogy was different from the previous two. It seems the story was evolving as Hugh Howey wrote it.
By the end of Dust, I felt all the set-up and story development was worth it. As usual, Howey’s writing was excellent. I liked how it ended. I need just enough resolution from a novel that I can continue to daydream. Dust did a good job in this regard.
I came to the Shift omnibus eager for Silo salvation, that is to say I wanted to learn the truth about the outside world. Instead, Hugh Howey provided the Silo back-story. Shift introduces new characters, none of whom I particularly cared for despite their importance to the story. Donald, a VIC (very important character), annoys me.
It is not his fault actually. One of Donald’s big conflicts is his love for his wife and how he is forced to work in suspiciously close cooperation with his old college girlfriend. The problem is that Helen, Donald’s wife, is a non-character--barely met by the reader and only mentioned in Donald’s whining self-loathing. In all fairness to the Donald story-line, the Helen versus Anna conflict yields huge, dramatic rewards in the Dust omnibus. So who am I to criticize a bestselling megastar like Mr. Howey? (Really, I am not being facetious. The man obviously knows what he is doing.)
The story of Silo 18 and the previous uprising is harrowing, the ending or resolution of this plot line is decent.
I hope that this review hasn’t led you to believe I disliked Shift. I enjoyed listening to the audiobook and moved on quickly to Dust, because I want to see what is outside the Silo. What is left of the outside world? Can people ever survive there again? Has the world population really been decimated, or will the Silo survivors find a hostile civilization and problems bigger than they ever dreamed?
I need to know.
As an indie author, I of course know the name of Hugh Howey. You have probably heard of him; he’s the guy who wrote a short story called Wool and became staggeringly successful as a self promoted, self published author. About a year ago, a friend of mine recommended Wool. I purchased the Kindle version, then later downloaded it from Audible.com when I had some monthly credits to blow.
So what happened when I finally got around to listening to it? I bought Shift and Dust and listened to them. My son asked if we could purchase the e-book of Wool after I told him about it, and I realized I already had the Kindle version. One of my many Kindle devices is now on permanent loan to my son (who reads way faster than I ever did).
It is difficult to talk about the story without cramming it with spoilers. It may suffice to say I quickly became as curious about the outside world as the more troublesome characters. If I had been living in the Silo, I’d surely have been sent to Clean (a death sentence).
The first story in the omnibus, Holston, had me from the start and the ending kicked me in the guts and caused me to keep reading. Book two, Proper Gauge, was slower paced but probably delved deeper into the primary character, Mayor Jahns, than most other parts of the entire series; the exception possibly being Donald and Juliette. Book three, Casting Off, is about Juliette becoming sheriff. While I enjoyed it, I wondered why all the trouble for her to be sheriff, given the brevity of her term.
Book four, the Unravelling, blurs with book three and five in my memories, since I listened straight through the omnibus with as few breaks as possible. The final part of the Wool collection, The Stranded, really raises the stakes.
All in all, I am very impressed with the Silo series. Hugh Howey is not only a successful indie author, but a credit to the breed.
Every book, movie, and product needs a review. Right?