Oswald: Return of the King by Edoardo Albert

Oswald One of my favourite reads from the first half of this year was Edwin: High King of Britain, the first in Edoardo Albert’s Northumbrian Thrones trilogy which tells the stories of three seventh century kings. On a visit to the library a few weeks ago I was pleased to find a copy of the second book, Oswald: Return of the King – and I was delighted to discover that it was just as good as the first.

It’s not necessary to have read Edwin: High King of Britain before starting this book – the key events of the previous book are given in a summary at the beginning of this one – but those of you who did read Edwin may remember Oswald as the young boy who fled into exile with his family after his father, Æthelfrith, King of Northumbria, was killed in battle.

During the years of Edwin’s reign, Oswald remains in the northern kingdom of Dal Riata, living amongst the monks on the island of Iona, where he is converted to Christianity. When news of Edwin’s death reaches the island, Oswald is reluctant to take action; he has no real desire to claim the throne for himself and would prefer to stay on Iona and enter the monastery. Abbot Ségéne, however, has other ideas – he wants Oswald to become king so that he can spread the new religion to his people – and a sequence of events follows which will leave Oswald with little choice other than to return to Northumbria and regain his father’s throne.

Oswald’s story is as exciting and engrossing as Edwin’s was. If the title, Return of the King, has made you think of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, that’s not a coincidence: Tolkien is thought to have taken the historical Oswald as the inspiration for his fictional character, Aragorn. Edoardo Albert lists Tolkien as a favourite author and there is a definite influence here, though it would be difficult to say how much. This tale of treachery and betrayal, stolen thrones and warring kingdoms does sometimes feel like fantasy – but of course, it isn’t; Oswald was a real person and Albert’s novel is based on historical fact (except where some imagination was clearly needed to fill in the gaps).

Oswald himself is a fascinating character and I thought his internal struggle between his desire to become a monk and his duty to become king was very well written. I also loved the portrayal of his relationship with his younger brother, Oswiu, who is going to be the subject of the third book in the trilogy. The brothers have very different temperaments, and while the loyalty and love they have for each other is plain to see, there’s also a tension which is always there below the surface.

Other characters include friends such as the monk, Aidan, who brings Christianity to the island of Lindisfarne, and enemies such as Cadwallon, King of Gwynedd, and Penda, King of Mercia – and I was pleased to see the return of Coifi, the pagan priest whom we first met in Edwin: High King of Britain, now a lost and lonely character having had his faith in the old gods shaken. I should also mention Oswald’s wonderful pet raven, Bran, who seems to have a personality all of his own (I wasn’t aware until after finishing the book that there are stories associating the real Oswald with a raven).

Before reading this book I had very little knowledge of Oswald or this period of history, so I found it a very informative novel as well as an entertaining one. Albert includes a lot of useful additional material: there’s a map showing the various kingdoms that made up Britain in the year 635, a character list, a glossary of unfamiliar words and a pronunciation guide – which was very helpful as I would otherwise have had no idea how to pronounce a name like Rhieienmelth!

I’m now looking forward to the third book in the trilogy – and while I await its publication I think I would like to read The King in the North by Max Adams for a non-fiction view of Oswald.

15 thoughts on “Oswald: Return of the King by Edoardo Albert

    • Helen says:

      I wasn’t aware of a connection between Oswald and Aragorn either until I read this book, but now that I know about it I can see the similarity in their stories.

  1. Elle says:

    The King in the North looked super when it was released here last year! And like Lory, I’ve only ever come across this period in fiction through Hild, which was INCREDIBLE. This looks like a promising way to continue!

    • Helen says:

      I’ve read Hild too and loved it – it’s such a beautifully written book. The Edoardo Albert novels cover the same period but from a male perspective rather than female so they complement each other very well.

  2. Edoardo Albert (@EdoardoAlbert) says:

    Thank you, Helen, for this lovely and perceptive review – it really made my day! May I ask which library you found Oswald in? I’m always interested to find out where he is appearing and I’m particularly happy to hear of people discovering my work in libraries.

  3. Edoardo Albert (@EdoardoAlbert) says:

    I also highly recommend Max Adams’ The King in the North. Or, ahem, there is my own non-fiction book, Northumbria: The Lost Kingdom, which I co-wrote with archaeologist Paul Gething who is director of the Bamburgh Research Project, which has done a huge amount to renew our understanding of Northumbria.

    • Helen says:

      I’ll definitely consider reading both of those books. I tend to read mostly fiction but when I find a subject that particularly interests me I do like to read some good non-fiction on the topic too. 🙂

  4. perspeculorblog says:

    I’m a postgraduate student concentrating mostly on Iona and Dal Riata, so this sounds like it would be exactly my kind of thing! Going straight on the reading list.

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