With 40 books behind him, the 65-year-old British-born author Bernard Cornwell is at the top of his game. But interestingly, his profession came as a sort of happy accident. As a young man, Cornwell married an American and moved to New Jersey. When he was unable to get a green card, he decided to try his hand at writing. The rest, as they say, is history.
The Burning Land is the fifth volume in Cornwell’s Saxon Tales series about the battle for supremacy between the Saxons and the Danes in ninth-century Britain. Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a fictional character loosely based on a Cornwell Saxon ancestor, is the star of Cornwell’s story and the battles fought to unify Britain under Alfred the Great. The book is written in Uhtred’s voice as he looks back on an exciting life that, in his opinion, has not been well-documented.
Historically, Cornwell’s major contribution is to tell the story of Ethelflaed, an actual heroine forgotten by most scholars. She interacts with Uhtred in the fictional sense, but figured prominently in the history of the Danes’ ongoing struggle with Britain. Yet it must be said that the few other women in the story are portrayed with a tinge of sexism, as is the case with the fictional Skade, a woman of exceptional beauty who is captured by Uhtred and stripped naked with a rope around her neck to entice her Danish lover, Harald Bloodhair, into battle.
Cornwell is adept at enveloping his fictional characters in British history. His use of geography, instruments of battle, strategy and ancient vocabulary is faultless. In Cornwell’s hands, Uhtred appears as a highly charismatic, heroic figure who accomplishes great things with his superior physical abilities and sheer force of will. Even if you haven’t read the previous books in Cornwell’s popular series, The Burning Land stands on its own two feet; no knowledge of early British history or of his earlier Saxon volumes is necessary for a reader to enjoy his dexterous approach to historical fiction.
Dennis Lythgoe is a writer who has lived in Boston and Salt Lake City.