Book Review: The Burning Land by Bernard Cornwell

Book 5 of The Saxon Stories

This is the fifth in Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon series and here we see Uhtred back to his best. After an incident with a crazed monk, Uhtred is forced to flee Alfred’s Wessex and strikes north to Anglia with a mind to return to his ancestral home of Bebbanburg (Bamburgh Castle) where he encounters old friends and foes.

After some complications in the earlier books, Cornwell finally seems ready to start grasping the story as it affects Uhtred instead of the grand historical events of the period. In this way, this novel feels very much in keeping with the first two books. We see the return of Ragnar and Gisela and Uhtred returning to his pagan Viking roots away from the Christian piety of Wessex, a place that Uhtred clearly hates to be by now.

Of course, comparisons will always be drawn with ‘Sharpe’. Both men are no nonsense, both are good soldiers, they are brave and fearless fighters and elements in their character working against them when it comes to those in authority. For Sharpe, it is the fact that he is an Officer raised from t’ranks. For Uhtred, it is that he is a pagan in Alfred’s very Christian Wessex. Though the conflict between the two men was interesting, it was starting to feel a little stale in “Sword Song”. Perhaps Cornwell felt the same way and took the decision to remove Uhtred from Wessex. You also get the feeling that he is starting to wind up the Saxon Stories now.


Book Review: Sword Song by Bernard Cornwell

Book 4 of The Saxon Stories

The major plot to this novel is the abduction of Alfred’s daughter, Aethelflaed and Uhtred is given the task of rescuing her. There is more intrigue, more historical development and the attempts to capture London into the kingdom of Wessex, a city being fought over by the Mercians, the Danes and by Alfred’s Wessex.

In some ways this is the weakest of the four novels despite the historical events it deals with and the inclusion of one of the English history’s most fascinating women just as she is about to take her place in shaping the country’s destiny.

Uhtred is now commander of a Burh, married and with a second child on the way and we are two years after ‘Lords of the North’. This is a good addition to the series but I’m starting to get to the point where I want the series to begin the process of wrapping up now.

Book Review: Lords of the North by Bernard Cornwell

Book 3 of The Saxon Stories

Uhtred returns north to claim his rightful rule to Bebbanburg after discovering the identity of the usurper that led to the Danes claiming his land. In the south, Alfred is making advances toward the north with the arrival of Guthrum’s Great Army. Uhtred once again finds himself a hired mercenary training soldiers in a hope of claiming back his land. Much of the same really.

There is no real departure from the theme of the series and by now anybody who has read the first two will know what to expect from the third. Cornwell has been determined to portray Alfred as a scheming king more concerned with poetry and piety than with fighting. He is of course largely correct that Alfred was no military genius, and Cornwell is also careful to portray the negativity in context of seeing it through Uhtred’s eyes, a dispossessed Northumbrian, adopted Viking pagan.

Alfred is sidelined a little here as we return to the story being about Uhtred. In a way, this makes this a better novel overall than the second book where it was tending to get away from Uhtred and was more about the tentative nature of Alfred’s Wessex at that crucial time.

Again I have nothing really to add in terms of praise and criticism. Cornwell has his carefully crafted formula by now and it is working well. Nothing feels tedious yet


Book Review: The Pale Horseman by Bernard Cornwell

Book 2 of The Saxon Stories

Following on immediately from the first novel, Uhtred finds himself frustrated by the tentative peace between Guthrum and Alfred and heads off to Cornwall as mercenary for a British King fighting off the Danes. During the course of the novel, Alfred retreats to the marshes of Athelney, and his kingdom is reduced to a few miles square. Uhtred is still a follower of the “heathen” ways despite Alfred’s attempts to Christianise him. One tactic is marrying him off to a widowed noble woman and giving him her former husband’s lands… land that is riddled with debt, something that Uhtred realises was designed to trap him. The novel ends with the historic Battle of Ethandun and this is where Cornwell really shines. The battles are well researched and well written, informative as well as entertaining.

There is not really that much to stand this book out from any of the others. It is, after all, the second in a series of what is expected to be a 6 or 7 volume story. That said, the same praise and criticisms from the first book remain. The formula is typically Cornwell, the characters are a little flat with the exception of Uhtred who acts as a narrator. The fictional characters gel well into the narrative with the historical figures and Cornwell admits throughout that he has jiggled around actual events to make it fit the course of Uhtred’s tale.

This really lacks the impact of the first for much of the book


Book Review: The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell

Book 1 of The Saxon Stories

Written by the master of historical fiction, “The Last Kingdom” is the first in a series of novels set in a period of British history largely untouched by fiction writers. The central character is Uhtred, an Anglo-Saxon from Northumbria who loses his title, his inheritance and his family when his kingdom is dissolved. Taken in by the Vikings as a young boy, he soon learns their ways and eventually feels more Viking than Saxon.

Eventually, he is brought to the court of King Alfred whose courtiers, though shocked by his strident paganism and “barbaric” Viking ways, gives him land and a title. He is tasked then to defend Wessex shores against the Viking attacks while at the same time maintaining respect for those who had taken him in and brought him up.

Uhtred doesn’t care about Alfred and his Christian piety, neither does he care for the Vikings particularly, he simply wants his kingdom back from the usurper.

“The Last Kingdom” is set at a critical time for Alfred. The other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms have been swallowed up by Guthrum’s Great Army and they are preparing for an assault on Wessex.

A world full of rich characters that has become Cornwell’s trademark, “The Last Kingdom” delivers in spectacular style the political and religious turmoil of the period. This differs from his Sharpe series in that he has carefully interwoven actual events into the narrative, giving an authentic and measured chronology that is often lacking in these sorts of series.

4/5 – incredibly well researched handling a period generally ignored by fiction writers, but a little formulaic and immediately identifiable as a Cornwell.