Oh, Bernie. Yet again, you’ve caught my mind in a time machine and swept it away to the muddy, war torn shores of Anglo-Saxon England.
It seems the Danes are at it again. They are plundering and pillaging, raping and enslaving, murdering and maiming their way across Wessex. A new Dane, Harald Bloodhair, has come to claim the throne of Wessex with the help of a mighty Viking fleet and his witch, Skade. But Uhtred of Bebbanburg, King Alfred’s reluctant champion, rides against him.
Outnumbered by Harald’s Danes and despised by Alfred’s top clergymen, Uhtred skillfully weaves the threads of Saxon politics to engineer a tactically brilliant (and lucky) route of the Danish force at the hill above Farnham.
Uhtred has once again proven his worth as Alfred’s war hammer. But when he is provoked into accidentally killing a mad priest by Alfred’s scheming Welsh Bishop, Asser, his lands and holdings become forfeit. But the scorned Uhtred has grown tired of fighting Wessex’s battles. He longs for Northumberland, and his fortress by the sea, and he decides to break his oath to Alfred. He flees to the north with a small crew of loyal men, and takes refuge in his brother’s (the Dane, Ragnar Ragnarsson) stronghold at Dunholm. There the two Warlords plot with the other Danish Jarls of the north to destroy Wessex, and with it Christianity, once and for all.
But, as Uhtred is fond of saying, wyrd bið ful aræd. “Fate is inexorable.”
Uhtred is once again drawn south by an oath he’d sworn to Alfred’s daughter, Aethelflaed, the princess of Mercia. His plans to fight with the Danish forces, and thereby accumulate enough wealth to take the mighty Bebbanburg, are once again put aside, and the entire book culminates in a climactic battle for the Danish held fortress of Benfleet.
The Burning Land is every bit the equal of the four preceding books in The Saxon Stories, and probably a bit better than the previous book, Sword Song. The formula is familiar, yet somehow not stale. Saxon England is painted with an impeccable attention to detail, and with a mind for history. Some things are embellished, but rarely are things changed, and even then the author includes a historical note explaining the changes against what actually happened.
Out protagonist, the aging Uhtred, narrates the story as he has with the previous four books with a gritty realism that is necessary for the subject matter. He is a likeable character, but he is far from perfect. His commentary is acerbic at times, and he is no lover of Christians. But in making Uhtred a Pagan Saxon, Cornwell has torn his narrator between loyalties, and this device allows the author to describe each side of the battle of Dane against English in a more unbiased way.
The overall plot of The Burning Land is a little disjointed at times, almost as though Cornwell changed his mind about halfway through the book. But this uneven narrative structure keeps the reader on unsure footing and further illustrates the series’ theme that fate cannot be decided or foreseen by man. It also serves as a way of keeping the hero in check. Uhtred isn’t infallible, and Cornwell does a great job of interrupting his youthful boasting with the pessimistic sarcasm of the older, narrator-Uhtred.
The Burning Land is an easy read, especially if you enjoy historical fiction, and it ends with several plot threads untied; fodder for future books that Cornwell plans to write. For folks who are interested in Anglo-Saxon England, Vikings, or for those of you who enjoy movies like Gladiator and Braveheart (with perhaps a little more historical accuracy), you cannot go wrong with this series of books. The mud, the blood, the guts, the political intrigue, and religious maneuvering are all captivating reasons to pick it up and go to that war stricken land. And they’re also all reasons to be thankful that you can close the book and be back in the dry warmth of your peaceful home.
I highly recommend all of the books in The Saxon Stories, and The Burning Land is no exception.