Reviewed by David Maclaine
The burning land in the title of the fifth of Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Tales is Mercia, the once-powerful kingdom north of Wessex that by this stage in the ninth-century Danish wars has lost its northeastern half to the invaders. The ruler of the remnant, Æthelred, has been bound to Wessex by marriage to King Alfred's daughter Æthelflaed, but he chafes at the tie and proves a sluggish, self-interested ally. But his cooperation does play a crucial part in yet another victory crafted by the narrator, Uhtred of Bebbanburg, and soon the connivance of hostile priests lures the grief-stricken Uhtred into a hasty manslaughter that results in his banishment. So it is that he heads north again, his fate intertwined with yet another woman with occult overtones, the beautiful and bloodthirsty Skade. She leads him on a quest for the silver that will help him reclaim his lost patrimony, but fate soon turns his gaze once more to the south. Will he help lead the Danes to victory against Alfred, or will he return once more to fight on the Saxon side? The key is a forgotten oath sworn to Æthelflaed.
As always in the series, this is a tale of savage brutality, with cruelty, torture and wanton slaughter crowding the pages along with vivid pages of fierce hand-to-hand combat. The bond between Uhtred and the proud, brave Æthelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, offers reassurance that the series will someday treat the crucial campaigns that cemented the Lady's reputation as perhaps the greatest of the many remarkable women who made history in the tenth century. The Burning Land shows how some pivotal events of this war against the Danes might have earned her the understanding and resolve she would one day require. And as the big battle looms, her brother Edward, caught in the flow of the swift-paced action, learns some nitty-gritty details of ninth-century warfare, and takes vital steps toward learning what a king should be. (2009, 352 pages)More about The Burning Land at Powell's Books, Amazon.com or The Book Depository