The Burning Land
© 2009 Bernard Cornwell
“I see all history as being — and this is very simplistic — a contest between puritans and cavaliers, and I’m instinctively on the side of the cavaliers. As far as Uhtred is concerned, the Danes are a helluva lot more fun.” – Bernard Cornwell, interview.
Uhtred of Bebbanburg has just achieved his greatest triumph, the masterful routing of a vast Danish army intent on making Mercia and Wessex their own. He is King Alfred’s Lord of War: his greatest servant, albeit the least orthodox. Despite their mutual gains together, the peace in Uhtred’s life is soon shattered when his beloved wife dies in childbirth and a vicious bishop denounces her as a whore. This attracts Uhtred’s attention, the bishop loses the use of his neck in short order, and soon our hero is faced with a choice: humiliation or exile.
Turning his back on his oath to Alfred and leaving his children in the care of a friend, Uhtred sails from Wessex accompanied by his most loyal comrades-in-arms, intent on returning to his adopted Danish family where he will at last be free — free of Alfred’s ambitions, free of Alfred’s mewling priests, free of Alfred’s laws and constant disapproval. At Dunholm, with his Danish brothers at his side, Uhtred can finally plan his recapture of Bebbanburg, his family’s ancestral land. Fate, though, has other plans: the Danes have not lost their ambitions to destroy Wessex, and when Uhtred receives a desperate plea from a woman whom he’s loved and protected all her life, he’s forced to make another difficult decision. Either choice will brand him a traitor and send him headlong into destruction, but “fate is inexorable”.
The Burning Land is the fifth and latest book in Bernard Cornwell’s unflaggingly strong Saxon series. Most of the book is populated by familiar characters, the only notable introduction being that of Skade, the ethereally beautiful and cruel warrior-priestess who I wasn’t sure Uhtred would kill or marry. Emotional turmoil abounds, as does military action: momentous battles bookend The Burning Land, and they’re two of the more interesting (site-wise) I’ve yet read. Though the books in this series are increasingly introduced by an aged Uhtred looking back at the past (and scowling at how remiss the monks have been in recording his role in these battles), I’m never certain as to where Cornwell (or the fates) are going to send the outcast Lord of Bebbanburg next. As is usual, the book’s pace is furious: I deliberately had to stop reading last night to prevent my rapture from interfering in New Years’ Eve plans.
It is with sorrow that I note the lack of a sixth book at present: I will be looking forward to Uhtred’s continuing adventures. At least the recess is starting on a strong note — I’d say this is the third best in the series, behind The Lords of the North and The Last Kingdom. That’s no small prize, considering the stellar quality of this series as a whole.