Bernard Cornwell is another one of my favourite authors. He writes smart, adventurous historical fiction in both stand-alone novels and long-running series, and he does so at a prolific rate: He has put out at least a book a year every year from 1981 up to the present; more often than not he’s written a couple, and in 1995, 2002 and 2003 he published three books inside of twelve months! Can you imagine if every author had this kind of work ethic? I can’t speak with great authority about Danielle Steel, but I suspect Cornwell has to be within an order of magnitude of her prodigious output, and that’s really saying something.
It’s easy to get hooked on Bernard Cornwell, and it’s even easier to get your fix. Even if you can shoot through one of his novels in a single long day in an arm chair, his current book total stands at fifty. He also does a nice job of jumping between his several series and single passion projects. No matter what you’re reading of his, though, you can sense the author’s enthusiasm, intelligence, and general good humour. There are an awful lot of authors whose work I admire, but who I doubt very much I’d like as a person. I’d love to buy Bernard Cornwell whatever he’s drinking. Let’s call it a standing invitation, shall we?
It is with some regret, then, that the first book review I do of his is not a glowing one. Don’t get me wrong: A run-of-the-mill Cornwell book is still worth your time and money, but I’m afraid The Burning Land leaves me feeling underwhelmed.
The Burning Land is the latest entry in Cornwell’s most recent series, the Saxon Stories, a first-person narrative of the life of Uhtred of Bebbanburg in the time of Alfred the Great, when the invading Danes swept over Britain and shattered all but one of the Dark Ages Saxon Kingdoms. It’s been a great series so far, and I suspect it’s become his special favourite. He’s written all five of them in the last six years.
Cornwell is an unapologetic formula writer, but it’s a great formula. He always writes about a fictional male protagonist who finds himself an active participant in the wars and politics of the age he’s living in. In the course of his book there is always a couple of brilliantly constructed battles –either imagined and/or well-crafted descriptions of real campaigns– populated with worthy foes, memorable comrades in arms, beautiful women, and some sort of quest or personal mission. With The Burning Land, however, one gets the sense that he’s moving from point A to B to C with such haste that the letters get jumbled. I’m left with the distinct impression that The Burning Land is less a stand alone novel in a series than a bridge between its predecessor and its as yet unwritten sequel.
I’d like to get specific to explain myself, and that’s going to involve some spoilers. The Burning Land starts off with a great scene, as the elderly Uhtred recounts a time, many years after the events of the current story, when he comes across monks transcribing their version of the Battle of Farnham (Fearnhamme in the novel), and burns it because it does not mention him, despite his place as the true architect of that victory. I think Uhtred is perhaps Cornwell’s best done character, and this is him in rare form: Uhtred is an intelligent man driven by his pride, his sense of honour, and very much aware at all times of his reputation as a warlord without peer. He’s torn between his love of the Danes and his true identity as the deposed Saxon lord of Bebbanburg, a coastal fortress in Northumberland that was usurped from him by his uncle when he was just a boy. He’s a pagan who defends Christians because of an oath he gave to King Alfred of Wessex, even though he is happiest with the Danes who raised him after his father’s death. Burning the monks’ only copy of the false history of Mercia is absolutely understandable behaviour from Uhtred, and I settled in to read what really happened, expecting Fearnhamme to be the penultimate battle at the conclusion of the book.
I was immediately unsettled when I find in the very next chapter that five years have passed uneventfully since the last book. The first four books of the Saxon Stories have seen Uhtred from the cradle to his late twenties, and now five of his years have gone by without an adventure worth telling. I know from the prologue that Uhtred must live to a ripe old age, but I still begrudge Cornwell taking five years of Uhtred’s prime and casting them away untold. With the Sharpe Series Cornwell has gone back and forth through Richard Sharpe’s life, filing in the holes, but I doubt very much he’ll do that with this gap. He goes so far as to say Uhtred spent half a decade serving as the garrison commander of Lundene (London), and nothing much happened. Those years are gone, and I’ll have to accept that.
Several things have changed in the last five years, and not for the better. Alfred, always sickly, is now old and sickly, and he has become shrill to boot. He only gets a couple of scenes in the whole book, despite this being the Age of Alfred the Great, and you get the definite sense that Alfred is being pushed aside gently in the author’s mind so his son Edward can take center stage in the sequel. Sunrise, sunset, I guess, but I still think Alfred deserved more page time. Meanwhile, Alfred’s bastard Osferth has grown up and become interchangeable with the rest of Uhtred’s war band. In the last book he was a young man who wanted to be a soldier despite his father the King wanting him to be a monk, and his clumsy, courageous attempts to earn a place at Uhtred’s side gave his character a soul. Now I find him no more an individual than Sihtric or Cedric. Aside from the fact that he looks like a younger version of his father, there’s no sign of the well-meaning incompetence that marked him as special before.
Cornwell launches into Fearnhamme early, and it is a satisfying if quick battle. The Danish warlord Harald Bloodhair is disabled before he’s really established as a worthy foe, and we all but forget about him by the end of the book, when he’s brought back almost as a deux ex machina to dispatch Skade, the femme fetale de jour of The Burning Land that Cornwell made so unlikable that I knew she was destined for a bad end quickly. Meanwhile, Gisella, Uhtred’s wife and a major character of the series, is killed off in childbirth while Uhtred is away campaigning. His grief is palpable, but I still felt she deserved a better send off then she got, especially as her death seemed more a vehicle to send Uhtred away from Wessex than for any worthier goal.
The middle of the book sees Uhtred looking for enough gold to raise an army to take back Bebbanburg, which he fails to find despite an interlude with a Frisian pirate who is also Skade’s husband. He then falls in with his old Danish quasi-brother Ragnar, and a lot of time is spent up in Scotland setting up what I can only assume will be the plot of the next book. Just when it looks like he’s throwing his lot in with the Danes to go Viking against Wessex he is summoned back by the oath he gave to Aethelflaed, Arthur’s sister.
I like Aethelflaed, and she was a major player in the last book, but I dislike how Cornwell tiptoes his way towards what is obviously Uhtred’s destiny: At some point Aethelflaed and Uhtred will marry, but that doesn’t happen in this book. In fact, I can’t even say for certain they finally consumate their relationship: There is a scene that is written in such a hazy way that they may or may not be lovers, but if they are, a bigger deal should have been made of it, and if they aren’t that should also have been stated clearly.
The final battle of the book is at Baemfloet, which is also where it was in the last novel too. In the last entry it was a worthy conclusion, but this time it feels rushed. Uhtred’s spent the entire book looking for an army, and until the last fifty pages he has less than a hundred men. When it comes time to save Mercia with an assault on the Danish camp, though, Alfred sends twelve hundred warriors to Uhtred’s aid without ever speaking to him. I’m not saying it’s unrealistic. It just felt like Cornwell was taking a shortcut to get to the action a little faster.
My next problem with the Baemfloet finale is that the Danish warlord involved should have been Haesten from the last book, but he isn’t there. He’s with his army in Mercia, and his position after the defeat of his camp is left hanging out there to be settled in the sequel, I suppose. Instead, Uhtred must take two forts under the command of Skade. The first fort is taken in the rather uninteresting but absolutely believable manner of pursuing the retreating sallying force through the gates. The second fort is meant to seem impossible, and in the end Uhtred resorts to throwing beehives over the walls to clear the ramparts. Again, I’m not saying it’s a bad idea, but it feels rushed. A couple of books earlier in the series Uhtred used Kjartan’s dogs against the defenders of Dunholm in a similar and much more satisfying escapade.
The conclusion of the book, again, left me feeling flat. The crippled Harald kills Skade so Uhtred doesn’t have to, and he is then killed without being allowed to hold onto his sword, denying him Valhalla. Uhtred gives a reason for this, but it rings a little hollow for me: Throughout the series, Cornwell uses Uhtred’s reverence for the Danish custom of holding onto iron when you die to be promised paradise to wonderful effect, and to deny his enemy that without a more satisfying build up felt forced. We’re left with Haesten at a loose end in Mercia, Ragnar camped somewhere in Devon, Skade and Harald dead and unlemented, and Uhtred and Aethelflaed ready for their next adventure… Which will be published next year, and probably involve Haesten, Alfred, Edward, and the Scots somehow.
The long and the short of it is that this book is a placeholder in the series. It’s just there, marking time, without making any real impact on me except in missed opportunities or as a set up for greater things to come. There have been other books by Bernard Cornwell I didn’t care for –Sharpe’s Devil being the one that leaps immediately to mind– but this one rubs me a little raw because the Saxon Stories are so clearly his new passion, and I wonder what he really wanted to accomplish with this episode.
Was it rushed through at this length because he was in danger of not making the Christmas season? Or is this him setting his standard pacing to one side in an attempt to break new ground? If the former, I lament the realities of the publishing industry that let this book go to press half formed. If the later, then I suppose I need to reserve judgment until I see how his next novel pans out. Violating a template is not a bad thing if it leads to creativity, and perhaps this ‘changing gears’ book is Cornwell evolving his writing style into something more spontaneous? I’m willing to give him all the time he needs to tell his story: He’s earned it.
Bernard Cornwell doesn’t write bad books. This one will sit proudly on my shelf, along with everything else he’s written. That said, this isn’t a story I would loan out to someone and say, “This is what Bernard Cornwell’s all about.” This novel as it stands is meant to be safely buried in the middle of a series, and I’m sure, within a couple of years, that’s exactly where it will be.