The Pale Horseman gets a solid 4 stars. BC is a very good writer but I’m not feeling like he is stretching himself here. Not that his writing is flawed, no way. I could not put this book down and just raced through it. I thought his battle scenes were as bloody and chaotic and good as ever. His characters were likeable or despicable and you do care about them. But it seemed too much of a template to get 5 stars. His main character, Uhtred, is a young rebellious youth, much like the main protagonist, Derfel, in BC’s Arthur trilogy. He felt almost like the same guy. I wanted some more originality, like we see with the excellent priest, Father Pyrlig, who shows up in the last part of this book. I want more of him. Here is Pyrlig’s advice to the overly pious King Alfred on the eve of the big battle with the Danes. “If you had an army of angels, lord, “ Pyrlig went on, “then a rousing speech about God and Saint Augustine would doubtless fire their ardor, but you have to fight with mere men, and there’s nothing quite like greed, revenge and selfishness to inspire mortals.”
BC gives such an excellent idea about what it must have been like to live, fight and die in the Ninth Century. Uhtred, his main character, is a Saxon, raised by the Danes, who later is fighting with and against the Danes, depending on the circumstances. BC brings to life the cold, wet, miserable, hungry, tired England of the era, nearly disappearing under the weight and ferocity of the Danish forces. His portrayal of a real king, Alfred the Great, is interesting because Alfred is neither likeable nor very competent in this story. Most of the Christian clergy is painted in very poor tones, a bunch of selfish, egotistical, thieving, greedy, ugly crooks in black habits. Probably accurate too.
BC is at his best talking about the fighting men and how they may have viewed their world: There is such joy in a good ship, and a greater joy to have the ship’s belly fat with other men’s silver. It is the Viking joy, driving a dragon-headed hull through a wind-driven sea toward a future full of feasts and laughter. The Danes taught me that and I love them for it, pagan swine though they might be. At that moment, running before Svein’s White Horse, I was happy as a man could be, free of all the churchmen and laws and duties of Alfred’s Wessex…
Here is Uhtred as he leads his men on a sortie into the enemies’ waters to plunder:“…I’m a lord! I’m right and I’m going to be rich! We’re all going to be rich! We shall eat off gold plates, piss down our enemies’ throats, and make their wives into our whores.” I was shouting this nonsense as I walked down the boat’s center, casting off the sail’s lashings. “We’ll all be rich with silver shoes and golden bonnets. We’ll be richer than kings! We’ll wallow in silver, shower our whores with gold, and shit lumps of amber! Tie those oars up! Plug the holes, we’re going north, we’re going to be rich as bishops, every man of us!” The men were grinning, pleased because I was roaring my enthusiasm, and men like to be led.
If you’re looking for a rousing read, you can’t go wrong with this one.