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.