This book is part two in the series that covers, firstly, the Battle of Fulford, and in this volume, the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Both books can stand alone, but it helps to see the extent of the Anglo-Saxon victory over the Norwegians when you realize just how much of a beating they took at the first battle. Harald Hardrada’s victory was complete; Earls Edwin and Morcar were on the run and York surrendered without the slightest hesitation. No wonder our hero Coenred and the remnants of the English army gathered disconsolately at Tadcaster, hoping against hope that King Harold would come to their rescue. And he did!
Coenred’s life quickly got complicated when his casual interest in the widow Mildryth deepened into something much more compelling, on both sides. Suddenly he had someone to go home to, but at the same time she became someone who could distract him from the business of war. The author tells a sweet story of their budding romance, forced into the background by compelling events he could never ignore. And when Harold Godwinson gathered his forces for a confrontation against the Viking invaders, Coenred was at the forefront of York’s support.
Meanwhile the Norwegians, confident that the resistance is at an end, gather at Stamford Bridge to collect hostages and supplies; about a third of the army stays with the ships at Ricall, around 10 miles away. The atmosphere is nearly festive, as they lay in the sun, swim in the river, and generally rest from their recent efforts. Most of them left their armor behind, only bringing a helmet and sword. When the grim and vengeful Anglo-Saxons approach from York, the Norwegians are surprised and totally unprepared. They fight well but their lack of armor ultimately decides the battle. Nonetheless, many stout English warriors fall by their sides.
Whitaker is very, very good at writing battle scenes. He brings us right into the midst of the action, and events are so cleanly depicted that there is no confusion. We also feel the desperate fear of the inexperienced fighters and the bitter determination of the veterans, intent on redeeming their losses at Fulford. The dialog reads much like a saga, full of glory and poetry, which gives this novel an other-worldly ambience of another time in another place.