The 9th century is a time of intense struggle, with the idea of England being born in the south, and nearly being destroyed by the Vikings before it takes root. King Alfred ("the Great") not only defeats the Norsemen, but steadily brings the whole country under the banner of Wessex. The first two books take us through Alfred's near total defeat and fightback, through the lens of Uthred, a young Saxon from the north who was raised by Vikings.
This books sees Alfred put on the back-burner while Uthred heads north to deal with personal quarrels, and gets caught up in the machinations of a would be king of the North. It's a page turner, as one would expect from Cornwell, with a huge twist in the middle that caught me completely by surprise. But it's not a book I can recommed to those who aren't already reading the series. It's a book of tranistion, tying up plot threads from previous books, and clearling the decks for the next major steps in the major arc of the books: the rise of King Alfred. We pay occasional visits to that story, and get ideas of how it's going, but this feels like an attempt to reconnect Uthred with his roots before returning to a struggle that is only just becoming his own.
An enjoyable read, sure enough, but only as part of a series. It's too clearly a chunk of filler between the key events in Alfred's reign to stand alone as a novel. Pick up The Last Kingdom and start from the beginning.