The Flame Bearer
© 2016 Bernard Cornwell
When the library received this book, I mimicked Johnny Carson’s character “Carnac” and held it to my head, intoning thus: “Uhtred of Bebbanburg is on the verge of recapturing his family fortress, stolen from him decades ago. But then comes a rider with news that a friend is in peril and needs help! Torn between his lifelong ambition and keeping troth with his friends, Uhtred reluctantly rides away and sees his opportunity fade away yet again.“
Page twenty, folks. I’m a bonafide psychic. Of course, I mock with love. I have read a ludicrous amount of Bernard Cornwell, and the Saxon Stories is responsible. But there are ten books in this series, and lately I’ve been wondering when Uhtred is going to capture his old castle so he can die in peace already. He’s had his foot in the door — the castle and death’s — a few times before, and every time something happens off in Northumbria or Wessex or some other heartily-named place. A woman is usually involved, and off he goes to rescue his friends. But now, with The Flame Bearer, the reign of teasing is over. This time the torturedly complex politics of Britain — Saxons fighting over who should rule the free kingdoms of Wessex and Northumbria, those same kingdoms plotting against one another and their mutual enemies the Danes and Scots — will bring Uhtred back to the gates of Bebbanberg, that fortress of few gates and mighty ramparts.
One of the greatest pleasures of the Saxon Stories series has been Cornwell’s flitations with oratory. Perhaps inspired by Danish warrior lore, Uhtred often chants his accomplishments to frighten his enemies. He is Uhtred who killed Ubba by the sea, who now as a greybeard has a reputation that quivers bowels across an island. Cornwell’s flair for dramatic narration is unmatched, especially while ruminating on the horrors — and joys — of battle. I’m not sure how he does it, since I’m tolerably certain that Cornwell has not in fact fought in a shield wall. But this is a story that needs a few passages of Epic Narration, because here Uhtred is finally doing what he has yearned to do since he was a boy, and it will require equal parts deception and epic kickassery. (Pardon my Ænglis.)
The Flame Bearer also exhibits Cornwell’s usual gift for funny dialogue, though not quite as much of it. Uhtred is too old to take many people seriously; he has killed too many great men to have any use for the young pups strutting and pretending on the stage. A paragraph of my view for Warriors of the Storm stands:
Need I give the usual praise? Dramatic prose of thunder flashing as armies trudge through the mud to meet destiny, quick wits amusing each other in conversation, bombastic speeches and a few sly jokes. All the usual Cornwell strengths are here, though it’s a quick book so they’re over more quickly. The twists and turns aren’t as sharp here, possibly because once the reader has marched with Uhtred for so long, one gets used to his sudden bolts of inspiration […].
That ended with “Next Stop: Bebbanburg!”, but Cornwell mentions in his historic note that the series isn’t over. This is the story of England’s beginning, and now that the spectre of his father has been quietened, now Uhtred of Bebbanburg has reclaimed his legacy, I look forward to seeing his role in fulfilling Alfred’s vision of a united kingdom.