If you look at my bookshelf, you will see that I have over half a long shelf devoted to Bernard Cornwell’s writing. It’s not just that he is prolific – which he is – but he is also very, very good at what he does. The Burning Land is the fifth book in the Saxon Chronicles, the story of Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a Dane at the service of King Alfred of Wessex set around 800 AD. The war between England and the Danes is a bloody, nasty affair that goes on for years, and in the first four books, Cornwell has followed Uhtred from childhood to memorable battles across England and the North Sea. In this book, Uhtred is caught between an oath he made to a dying king, and his desire to regain the lands stolen from him.
I loved this book. I can’t say enough good things about it. It’s an interesting tale, about a fascinating piece of world history. Cornwell often takes a period in history, puts memorable characters into the key places and moments, though usually into the background, and tells a fictional account of true events. I can’t say with any certainty whether or not his stories adhere strictly to exactly what happened, but I would never doubt his research. Yes, he does take liberty in order to enhance the story, but I can’t imagine how you can tell these stories accurately.
In some of Cornwell’s other stories, the characters are a little thin. Throw a hero, a woman in distress and a completely evil villain onto paper so Cornwell can tell us about a battle. But this book is different, in a wonderful way. The battles and the history become secondary to the characters. The characters are flawed and dangerous and all motivated in some unique way. Greed, honor, love, revenge. This story has it all and more. The writing is fantastic, the vocabulary appropriate and intermingled with historical terms and place names that put you right in the time and place.
For lovers of this genre, this is one of those books to curl up with on the couch on a wet and nasty day and get lost in. I didn’t want to put it down, and when I did, even late at night, I was thinking about the story and the characters, and wanting to go to the sites of these battles and see them first hand. I can imagine Cornwell sitting in his study on a cold, blustery day, and not being able to stop writing because he loves the story and it shows. I can only hope that some day, I can generate the same feel with my writing.