Cornwell, The Burning Land.

NY: HarperCollins, 2010.

In the first four volumes of this excellent series, Alfred of Wessex, largely with the assistance of his most important warlord, the Saxon Uhtred of Bebbanburg, has held the Danes at bay and established a certain amount of security for his kingdom. He has ambitions to be king of all of what we now call “England,” but he’s getting old (he’s in his 40s) so he’s passed that ambition on to his son, Edward (an efficient military leader who will be known to history as “Edward the Elder”). And Alfred tries to coerce Uhtred to give his oath to the Aetheling, too, but the warlord declines.

He’s mostly waiting for Alfred to die so he’ll be free to go north and recapture his family’s fortress from his usurping uncle. Even Uhtred recognizes that Alfred has become a great king, though he’s frequently ill, always priest-ridden, and not very likeable as a person.

While the previous volumes have pretty much segued from one immediately into the next, this one picks up after a lapse of six years, during which time Uhtred, now the military governor of London (which he captured for Alfred in the previous book), goes out on regular river patrols after Danish raiders and pirates, sleeps at home most nights, and enjoys the company of his Danish wife and three children. Then the Danes manage to get their act together again under a couple of new leaders (they’re fearsome fighters one-on-one but are mostly cautious opportunists in the aggregate) and mount a new invading army, and Uhtred has to meet them and defeat them at Farnham — as complete a victory as any in the Saxon-Danish wars, but not the final one. But then word comes that his wife has died in childbirth. Uhtred’s grief turns to ungovernable rage when one of Alfred’s priests (all of whom loathe and fear the thoroughly pagan Uhtred, who was captured as a boy and raised by the Danes, whom he still mostly prefers to the Christian Saxons), assaults and insults the warlord’s dead wife — apparently with the king’s blessing. Uhtred kills the priest before Alfred’s eyes and flees with his most loyal followers. Alfred has always treated him like crap, the bishops want him arrested and killed as a pagan (and therefore automatically an agent of Satan), and he’s had enough. He sails north to Northumbria and joins his foster brother, Ragnar, lord of Durham. He’s broken his oath to Alfred (a very important matter) but he swears he will never serve Wessex again. Moreover, he will help the northern Danes (who believe Alfred is on his deathbed) to attack the southern Saxons in order to get the silver to hire the men to take back Bebbanburg. In the meanwhile, he voyages to the Frisian coast in an attempt to defeat a notable pirate and steal his hoard. And then all his plans are upset when a summons comes from Aethelflaed, Alfred’s daughter, who was married off to Aethelred, the premier nobleman of Mercia — who also happens to be Uhtred’s cousin, and probably wasn’t nearly as contemptible as the author paints him. Aethelred wants to frame her for adultery so he can be rid of her. Uhtred took an oath to her once — not under coercion this time — and his Fate is calling him back to the south. Historically, Aethelflaed was a true English heroine who has gotten short shrift because of her gender. (She’s also destined to become the mother of Aethelstan, the first real King of the English.)

And all that is only the first section of the book! Cornwell does an excellent job of laying out grand strategies as conceived by both the Saxons and the Danes, of playing off the inherent psychologies of the two sides, and of making it very clear just how much hangs in the balance — and by how slender a thread. That’s in addition to his skillful, deeply involving, nearly cinematic descriptions of the chaos of hand-to-hand battle — an art of which he is the leading exponent today. The climax of the story relates the defeat of the Danes at Benfleet on the Essex coast of the Thames, which had been a haven for Danish ships for several generations — and which happens to be right next door to Thundersley, where Cornwell himself grew up. Alfred has another half-dozen years to live, and Edward has just begun to build his reputation as a leader (with Uhtred’s help), and the Danelaw is going to be there for awhile yet, so the next couple of episodes in the saga should be very interesting.

Published in: on 23 April 2011 at 4:41 am  Comments (1)  
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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Superb web-site sincerely, Angelia Allbritton

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