Review: The Burning Land

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?

Review: The Last Kingdom

Last Kingdom

The Last Kingdom, Bernard Cornwell. New York: Harper C0llins, 2006.

Summary: This first of the Saxon tales tells the story of the invasion of England by the Danes and the fierce resistance led by Alfred the Great, all through the eyes of a boy turned warrior who at different times fights first for the Danes, then for Alfred.

Uhtred, son of Uhtred, Earl of Bebbanburg witnesses the coming of the Danes, the death of his brother and father and is taken captive by Ragnar, who led the Danes in the victories resulting in these deaths. He loses Bebbanburg to a rival who bows to the Danes, and he himself is raised as Ragnar’s more or less adopted son, learning from an early age the deadly arts of war, the fearsome thing known as the shield wall, and the strange joy of battle.

Uhtred matures as he witnesses one kingdom after another within England fall to the forces of the Danes. He repudiates the Christianity of the youth for the pagan warrior gods of the Danes. And the gods seem to favor them until they encounter Alfred, King of Wessex who is sufficiently successful to win a truce for a time. Uhtred and Brida, another captive, who becomes his lover and constant companion settle down in the beautiful country while they await the next attempt to defeat Alfred, little aware of the treachery of Kjartan, who is plotting against Ragnar, and indeed Uhtred himself. Uhtred and Brida alone escape a slaughter, which sends them to seek shelter, first with English relatives, and then in Alfred’s court, to fight for Alfred against the Danes, and to harbor the hope of recovery Bebbanburg one day.

Cornwell not only captures the fearsome character of warfare at the shield wall, where it is kill or be killed, in brutal combat. He also captures the beauty of the land, which the Danes wished to gain and the Anglo-Saxons wished to hold. And he sketches a portrait of Alfred, who genuinely fears God yet struggles to rein in his lusts, who is tormented by intestinal disorders and hemorrhoids, and yet can inspire men to fight and resist and entertains a vision of not only holding Wessex, but of extending his rule throughout England, even in the face of the Danes.

In the concluding part of the book things come to a head as Uhtred must face those he once fought with, as he fights now under Alfred, and as a confrontation looms that could destroy the last kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons. Cornwell brings this history to life, and as he does so, helps us understand why this was fought-over land. While doing so, he draws characters, both real and fictional who evoke strong emotions of affection or disdain, but never “just another Dane or Saxon.”

Having thoroughly enjoyed his Agincourt last fall and the first of these tales, I think I just might go on and read some more!


Review: Agincourt

AgincourtAgincourt, Bernard Cornwell. New York, HarperCollins, 2009.

Summary: Through the eyes of Nicholas Hook, we see the massacre of Soissons, and the English invasion of France under Henry V including the frustrating seige of Harfleur, and the miraculous victory at Agincourt.

For many of us, if we know anything of the battle of Agincourt, it is through the lens of Shakespeare’s Henry V. Perhaps if you are a fan of military history, you’ve read John Keegan’s account in The Face of Battle. I was familiar with both of these but Bernard Cornwell brought this battle and the events to vivid life as it might have been experienced by one of the “few” English who fought it.

The story is told through the experiences of Nicholas Hook, an archer of dubious background caught in a family feud and outlawed from England because he struck a corrupt and mad priest in a failed attempt to rescue a young girl from rape. He flees to France to survive the massacre of English and French in Soissons, along with a French girl, Melisande, who he rescues from another rapist, atoning for his failure. We also soon learn that Lanferelle, who oversaw the destruction of Soissons, is the father of Melisande, out of wedlock, and he, and Hook become bound in a life and death compact over her. From his miraculous escape on, he is accompanied by the voices of Saints Crispinian and Crispin, the patron saints of Soisson, to whom he had prayed for deliverance.

He comes into the service of Sir John Cornwaille, who protects him from outlaw charges and the mad priest who continues to scheme against him and Melisande, who Hook now loves. Cornwaille recognizes his talent and makes him a ventenar, commanding a group of archers. And so he becomes part of King Henry V’s invasion force attempting to wrest the crown of France for Henry.

Cornwell helps us grasp the futility and frustration of the prolonged seige of Harfleur, brilliantly defended by the French, resulting in a severe weakening of the English army from dysentery and battle before the city was finally taken. Rather than return to England, which seemed prudent, Henry decides to march to Calais to defy the French, only to be blocked by them, culminating in the battle of Agincourt where 6,000 English (5,000 of which were archers) faced and defeated 30,000 French in a bloody massacre, avenging Soissons on the Feast Day of Sts. Crispin and Crispinian.

Cornwell does not spare us the gruesome details of the brutality of men against women, the conditions of a siege camp ridden with dysentery, nor the brutality of combat and the gruesome ways men died from arrow, mace, sword, and club, often in hand-to-hand combat. At the same time, his storytelling helps us experience, as if we were one of the archers, what this must have been like, even as we wonder how Nick and Melisande will survive their enemies, both the French and English. He also helps us understand the strategic factors that contributed to the English victory, ranging from the ground on which they fought, the critical role played by English archery, and the mistakes of leadership on the part of the French.

If you can stomach the violent descriptions, which I did not think gratuitous although they were graphic, you will find a spell-binding story as well as a well-nuanced rendering of the history of Henry V’s invasion of France, It is also intriguing to see Cornwell’s portrayal of the mix of piety and brutality in the lives of these men who faced death at close quarters.

Airport Reads

Just a quick post today because I’m traveling.  Airport (and airplane) reading is different.  There are all those intrusive TSA announcements and the cabin announcements about seatbelts and other safety items (or apologies for why we are still on the ground).

So I find the ideal book in these circumstances is very different.  One basic qualification is that is very readable and easy to pick up where you left off.  For today, this was Michelle Alexander,s The New Jim Crow which in fact is quite a riveting account of how the war on drugs, sentencing guidelines, imprisonment and the problems that come with felony convictions have created a black and brown underclass (and illuminating to me is that there is just as much white drug abuse but policing has focused on minority communities).

So what will I read if I finish this?  I have some Bernard Cornwell historical fiction, some Agatha Christie, and several Walker Percy novels on my Kindle,  I’ve found the Kindle great for travel–I can have all these books available on this one light tablet.

What do you like to take along with you to while away the hours in airports, or in other forms of travel?