The Burning Land (Saxon Chronicles #5), Bernard Cornwell. New York: Harper Collins, 2010.
Summary: Uhtred, Alfred’s warrior is torn between his oaths to Alfred and his daughter, his longing to recover his stolen home of Bebbanburg, his Viking friend Ragnar, and the threat of a dangerous woman, a knife edge on which the fate of Alfred’s kingdom balances.
Uhtred, the Saxon raised by Vikings, is a warrior of unusual prowess in battle, a prowess of mind and strategy as well as the wielding of sword and shield and the leadership of men. He is sworn to Alfred, who claims to be “king of all Angelcynn” and has been key to sustaining that rule against the Danes. Once again he meets that challenge as Harald Bloodhair meets him at Fearnhamme. A charge down a hill combined with an attack from the rear decimates Harald’s army despite the curse of Harald’s woman, Skade, who is the most fearsome opponent Uhtred will face.
Yet Gisela, Uhtred’s beloved wife dies, and is subsequently insulted by a “seer” who Uhtred strikes down. This estranges him from Alfred, to whom he is oathbound and who wanted him bound as well to his son Edward, still unproven in battle. For a time, Uhtred even teams up with Skade who is drawn to power and conquest. Yet Uhtred’s ultimate aim is only to recover the castle home and kingdom of Bebbanburg from the uncle who stole it from him. Having neither the wealth nor the men to achieve this, he joins his old friend Ragnar and his old enemy Haesten to attack Alfred.
It is here that Skade will abandon him for Haesten, who has his sights set on Mercia, ruled by the husband of Alfred’s daughter Aethelflaed. Another oath, to Aethelflaed leads to the abandoning of his plans with Ragner and the his ultimate confrontation with Skade in what appears a lost cause.
Cornwell portrays a confrontation between Christianity and the old pagan gods of both Uhtred and the Danes, and an array of priests, some craven and some of great courage. We see a man torn by his only true ambition, the recovery of his home, and his oaths. We wonder why such a great warrior seems also unable to acquire the wealth and men to fulfill his ambitions, seemingly destined to fight others’ battles. We also have plenty of battles, and learn of the particular devastation of the sword that comes from beneath the shield. Throughout, we recognize why Uhtred is both hated and sought–his unique ability to see the way to victory, even against odds. But will it be enough against the wicked Skade?