Book review: Saxon: The Emperor’s Elephant by Tim Severin

In the late eighth century, the world was at the bidding of three formidable rulers and keeping on-side with just two of them was enough to test even the most audacious and enterprising.
Saxon: The Emperors Elephant by Tim SeverinSaxon: The Emperors Elephant by Tim Severin
Saxon: The Emperors Elephant by Tim Severin

Young Saxon prince Sigwulf, exiled from Britain at the Frankish court of King Carolus, the future Charlemagne, will have to play a clever game if he is to survive his devoutly Christian master’s power play with the magnificent Caliph of Baghdad, supreme overlord of all the Saracens.

Explorer and filmmaker Tim Severin returns with the second, action-packed instalment of his thrilling young adult Saxon series which brings to life early European history with all its inherent uncertainty, volatility and danger.

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Severin excels at recreating history on an epic stage and here he takes us on a thrilling journey into the far Northlands and perilous Holy Lands of the known world as we accompany Sigwulf on what seems a mission impossible.

Sigwulf, marked out by his eyes of different colours – viewed by many as the Devil’s Mark – is virtually a hostage at the court of King Carolus who has held his throne for 20 years now and is growing self-absorbed, imperious and increasingly threatening.

Summoned by the royal adviser Alcuin of York to the king’s palace at Aachen, Sigwulf learns that Carolus has received some lavish gifts from Haroun al Rashid, the Caliph of Baghdad, and is determined to send back presents that will be equally sensational.

White is the royal colour of Baghdad so the most important gifts will be rare white animals from the Northlands. Sigwulf, having proved himself as a royal agent to Moorish Spain, has been selected to obtain the creatures and then take them to Baghdad.

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Sigwulf must find white gyrfalcons and two white polar bears and, as Carolus has seen its picture in a book of beasts, a unicorn.

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Along with Osric, the Saracen who was once his slave but is now his trusted companion, Sigwulf travels far into the north and although they capture some of the animals, they quickly realise that the unicorn is no more than a mythical creature.

Setting out for Baghdad with their strange menagerie, Sigwulf, Osric and their men encounter a series of dangerous accidents. It seems someone is out to wreck their mission…

Authentic historical detail, blood-pumping action sequences and a beguiling sense of mystery give added impetus to this superb series which puts the emphasis firmly on adventure.

(Macmillan, hardback, £16.99)

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