See I know Bernard Cornwell. He did a series on Arthur ~ which I was foolish enough to read. Irritated me no end. Like any amateur historian with an interest in 4th/5th century Britain [ie King Arthur & the fabled Camelot] I have my pet theories. I know whether I think he was real or not. A king or a warlord. Whether He was Welsh, British or something feral out of the northern reaches. I have a vision of the Britain that is from the history I've read & Cornwell didn't fit what was in my head. Marion Zimmer Bradley [Mists of Avalon] is closer ~ or Manda Scott [Dreaming the Serpent Spear]. Ok, yeah I know; they're women, but they get it. They get the mix of hard~nosed realism & Celtic mysticism. Cornwell went for the Roman angle & that has never ever fitted in my mind. No one I've ever read suggested Arthur fought like the Romans. He fought like a Celt & the further you go back, into the very first stories, the original ones Thomas Malory built his Medieval romance around, the less Roman he gets & more Celtic warlord he becomes, half god, half man ~ which is why Bradley & Scott make so much sense to me. They've read the Celtic material. They use the old symbols. They understand the Celtic idea of the King being married to the land ~ to say nothing of Merlin who is very definitely a druid. Forget priest or sorcorer. The Druids were power hungry madmen & the real power behind any throne: Brehons, genealogists, lawmakers, historians, councillors...so Romanizing this period is just sad. [And yes, I know about Mona so think Culdee.] It was a lot of things but overly Roman it was not, though the Celts practically enough took what they liked of Roman ways: the baths [the Celts invented soap for crying out loud!], the aqueducts, the wine ~ very definitely the wine!
That being the case I was more than a little suspicious of anything else I came across of Cornwell's. Actually I might have forgiven him his historical inaccuracies if his Arthur was interesting but he wasn't. He was dull. Almost as dull & irritating as Stephen Lawhead's Arthur ~ & don't get me started on Lawhead who did things completely reprehensible with people, places & times ~ for which there is absolutely no excuse! None. Arthur might have been a lot of things, including totally imaginary, but he was hardly dull. At which point it is only fair to point out Cornwell is considered an extremely good amateur historian.
So what was I doing reading The Pale Horseman? The honest truth? IGA was practically giving them away so I bought one. Now this isn't the first book in the series; it is the second one. Not that I care & not that it matters. Enough background story is shared so you can't get lost. The world is the world that became after Arthur's death, a Saxon world. At which point I deviate to point out the Scot's word for the English is Sasseneach ~ Saxon, & they are still hated with a passion! Just so you know. England is becoming but is not yet. She is made up of lots of smaller kingdoms, each with their petty king, chief of whom is Alfred, king of Wessex ~ which is sort of in the middle of the south. Cornwall was on one side, Kent & Essex on the other & to the north was the old kingdom of Mercia.. And the whole lot was being harried by the Danes. As another aside Viking used to be a verb, not a noun, so viking was something you did, not something you were & what the Danes did was go a~viking, rather successfully as it happens. Successfully enough they nearly stole Alfred's kingdom out from under him!
The Pale Horseman is the story of part of that war & it's definitely not for the squeamish! The tale is told by Uhtred, a disinherited Saxon raised among the Danes, pagan in Alfred's Christian court, & a warrior among priests & scholars. Yes, it is massively bloodthirsty. No, none of the main characters are at all likable. It makes you blush for the superstition & sins of the early Christian church but....it was un~put~downable! It was a romping good read. Not great literature. Nothing lovely about the language but it is storytelling at its absolute best. It grips you by the throat, pumps adrenaline through the bloodstream & keeps you turning pages long after your bedtime! If you have a strong stomach, highly recommended. I'll be getting the next in the series.