Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Burning Land by Bernard Cornwell

Bernard Cornwell delivers another action-packed treasure in The Burning Land, fifth installment in his paragon Saxon Tales, set in 9th century Britain. Once again, Uhtred of Bebbanburg rises to his reputation as King Alfred’s formidable warlord and snatches another great victory from the Danes, this time at Farnham. While his family grows and Gisela provides comforting familiarity, two other women – Aethelflaed, the fair daughter of Alfred, and raven-haired Skade, a cruel and enchanting Danish sorceress – tug Uhtred’s fate in opposing directions. At a time when it seems he is never more more highly valued by Alfred, an insult from a proclaimed saint incites an act of sacrilege and Uhtred becomes an outlaw on the run, seeking the fortune that will propel him back to power and seal his fate as Lord of Bebbenburg.

From the blood-soaked battlefields of Saxon versus Dane, where one can practically hear the guttural battlecries and clang of weapons, to the cold, spume-capped North Sea as Uhtred voyages on Seolferwulf, The Burning Land is perhaps the best so far of the series. Not only does Cornwell give us a superbly paced tale of adventure, impossible odds, unlikely trysts and a revolving appearance of old allies and sworn enemies, but here we begin to glimpse an Uhtred who is not only wiser and more far-thinking, but willing to risk seizing vengeance for the sake of a promise.

I’ve been a Cornwell fan since picking up one of the Grail Quest series in Scotland a decade ago. With an author as prolific as Cornwell, one might expect his stories to become more formulaic and his characters flatter with each successive product, but in my opinion the opposite is true here: Cornwell somehow manages to get better with every story. This is one of those rare books I could read again. If you like historicals rife with battle scenes, perilous tales of adventure and an antihero who is, at the core, loyal and recklessly courageous, then don’t miss The Burning Land.

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