Book Reviews, Literary

Review: THE BURNING LAND, by Bernard Cornwell

<a href="http://""">The Burning Land</a> Book Cover
The Burning Land Fiction Harper Collins 368

In a clash of heroes, the kingdom is born. At the end of the ninth century, with King Alfred of Wessex in ill health and his heir still an untested youth, it falls to Alfred’s reluctant warlord Uhtred to outwit and outbattle the invading enemy Danes, led by the sword of savage warrior Harald Bloodhair. But the sweetness of Uhtred’s victory is soured by tragedy, forcing him to break with the Saxon king. Joining the Vikings, allied with his old friend Ragnar—and his old foe Haesten—Uhtred devises a strategy to invade and conquer Wessex itself. But fate has very different plans. Bernard Cornwell’s The Burning Land is an irresistible new chapter in his epic story of the birth of England and the legendary king who made it possible.

THE BURNING LAND is the fifth Bernard Cornwell tale about Uhtred, a fierce ninth-century warlord battling his way through enemy shield walls in an England waiting to be united. You should know this right away, along with the fact that it won’t be the last of the series. It’s hard enough to write one novel, but it’s downright difficult to pen five of them consecutively with the same characters and themes and keep the writing fresh and interesting. “Difficult” isn’t even the word; “impossible” is more like it. (Even the most devout Cornwell fan is going to have a hard time getting through the whole 20-plus volumes of the Richard Sharpe series without wincing at the umpteenth explanation of how Sharpe got his telescope or the workings of the deadly seven-barreled gun.)

But if you liked the first four volumes of Cornwell’s Saxon Tales, the good news is that there’s more of the same in THE BURNING LAND. There are cruel and disgusting Viking invaders, heartless and crafty priests, dangerous and exotic women, and the endless machinations of Alfred the Great, which invariably lead the doughty Uhtred into a welter of gore. Cornwell has not lost his deft touch in describing the joy of battle, the inexorable flame that runs through a warrior when he stabs someone in the eye with a spear.

One of Uhtred’s core beliefs is that his fate is determined by the three spinners of Norse legend — that he is a plaything of the gods, to be turned this way and that. It’s easy to see why he might think so, especially because Cornwell uses him so often as a pawn. Uhtred is forever being manipulated by one character or another, and it doesn’t really help the narrative much that he is aware of this and is somewhat cynical about it. But there is one moment in the story after Uhtred has fallen for a truly transparent ruse where he is able to break free from the ties that bind him to Saxon Wessex. And this leaves him free to follow his own desires for once, where he can take his Viking longboat with the wolf’s head prow and finally settle an old score. It appears — at least for a while — that this will be the book in which Uhtred finally captures the unassailable fortress of Bebbanburg, kill his usurping uncle and reclaim his stolen patrimony.

If that had happened, it would be a truly impressive feat of arms, leading to a bloody and violent battle, ending in triumph and disaster. It would also end the series. And as you might expect, Cornwell has other plans for Uhtred — and even though these plans lead him to another improbable battlefield, against a fearsome foe, it is still something of a letdown. This is not to denigrate THE BURNING LAND in any way; it’s superior entertainment (if you like your entertainment blood-stained and brutal). Uhtred is a fully-realized character, capable of great bravery and great foolishness, mixed in with — as he might describe himself — the deviousness of Loki and the thunder of Thor’s hammer in battle. And Cornwell’s eye for period detail and his capacity for pulling off deft reverses are still in place, which helps to keep the narrative turning briskly along.

The only thing to dislike about THE BURNING LAND is that it didn’t go in the direction that the main character (and at least this part of the readership) wanted it to go. But that means that the issue of who holds Bebbanburg Castle will be resolved in another volume, and given Cornwell’s talents, that will be a book to wait for indeed

Book Reviews, Literary

Review: AGINCOURT, by Bernard Cornwell

<a href="">Agincourt</a> Book Cover
Agincourt Fiction Harper Collins 512

One of the most dramatic victories in British history, the battle of Agincourt—immortalized by Shakespeare in Henry V—pitted undermanned and overwhelmed English forces against a French army determined to keep their crown out of Henry’s hands.

Here’s the situation. You’re a peasant, and as we used to say back home, you’re so broke you can’t pay attention. You’re in the middle of a medieval battlefield, filled with rough characters and sharp weapons, with nothing to cover your own precious hide but the clothes on your back. You have one superb weapon — the English longbow — but not much in the way of arrows. You also have a long, sharp stick, assuming you haven’t burned it for firewood already. On the other side of the line of battle, there is a nobleman, a feudal lord who owns, more or less, the labor of hundreds of people just like you. He’s on a horse, wearing a suit of armor that incorporates all of the best technology of the day and worth more than your entire village can produce in 10 years. You’ve shot your last arrow, and the guy with the armor is coming to crush your skull. A plan would seem to be in order.

This is what you do, if you’re lucky enough and strong enough to pull it off. You plant yourself right in front of the galloping, charging horse (nobody said this was going to be easy), stab it with your sharpened stick, and hope that the animal is hurt enough and scared enough to knock its rider clean off. While the knight is still on his back, trapped under the weight of his armor, you find the one weak spot in the armor — his visor. And then you draw your long hunting knife and stab the no-good wretch right in the eye. Score one for the home team.

That’s the reality of medieval warfare. It’s savage, messy, and a million miles away from something as comparatively cold and dispassionate as pushing the button that unleashes hundreds of pounds of high explosives from a Predator drone over a terrorist camp. And if you want to bring back that world in fiction, it’s not enough to reproduce the strategies of battle and the blood and slaughter that follows in its wake. You have to know the ground — the sticky French mud that bogged down a huge army, making it vulnerable to barefoot English archers. You have to know the technology — how the English craftsmen took a piece of yew wood and shaped it into a weapon that changed history. You have to know the dynastic politics that animate the strategy, the engineering of the castles and the religious beliefs that led men into battle.

In other words, it’s the kind of thing that Bernard Cornwell has been doing for years — and nobody does it better.

If you’re not familiar with Cornwell’s work, you can start with his bestselling novels about the Viking era in England, which follow a ferocious war leader into the shield walls of Alfred the Great. Or you can check out the monumental Richard Sharpe series, which chronicles a Napoleonic War hero from the torture pits of an Indian warlord all the way to a personal confrontation with the Corsican corporal in exile on the lonely island of St. Helena. Both of these series (as well as other Cornwell novels set in the Civil War or the American Revolution) betray a comprehensive knowledge of their respective historical eras — and, even more important, considerable skill in making the battlefields and characters come to full, comprehensible life.

Cornwell’s books are populated with stout, resolute heroes, noble enemies and the treacherous plots of evil men. AGINCOURT is no exception; the differences are largely in the areas of weapons technology, strategy and the intricate details of late medieval life. Its principal hero, longbowman Nicholas Hook, differs from most Cornwell protagonists in his religious faith (notwithstanding that it’s hard to be a good Christian when your job description involves stabbing people in the eye).

The story of the climactic battle of Agincourt has been told before, most notably by Shakespeare, who gives King Henry perhaps the most rousing speech in English literature. Cornwell incorporates that speech in his narrative, but it’s more of a grace note than anything else. The real work is done in the trenches, by the men with the long bows and the empty stomachs. Cornwell tells their story, and nobody does it better.

Book Reviews, Literary

Review: DEATH OF KINGS, by Bernard Cornwell

Death of Kings Book Cover
Death of Kings Fiction Harper Paperbacks 336

Torn between his vows to Alfred and the desire to reclaim his long-lost ancestral lands in the north, Uhtred, Saxon-born and Viking-raised, remains the king’s warrior but has sworn no oath to the crown prince. Now he must make a momentous decision that will forever transform his life and the course of history: to take up arms—and Alfred’s mantle—or lay down his sword and let his liege’s dream of a unified kingdom die along with him.

Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Tales teach us that fate is inexorable and history is cruel. These forces shape not just our history, but our historical fiction as well. The newest volume is titled DEATH OF KINGS, and Cornwell has to deal not only with the inexorable historical fact of the death of Alfred the Great, but also with the cruelty of the loss of Alfred the Great as a character in his novel.

“Cornwell has to deal not only with the inexorable historical fact of the death of Alfred the Great, but also with the cruelty of the loss of Alfred the Great as a character in his novel…. Cornwell writes about battle with verve and attention to detail…”

It might have been one thing if Alfred had died in battle. Cornwell’s books thrive on battles, whether in pre-Norman England or Napoleonic Spain or the ragged edges of empires. But here, Alfred dies at home — of sickness and old age — and DEATH OF KINGS is largely the story of the continuation of his kingdom. The new king must face an ascendant church bureaucracy, family rivals, and the constant threat of Danish invasion. In order to do that, he has to have a war leader, someone of unrivaled courage and cunning, a threat to his enemies and all who dare oppose him in the shield wall of medieval battle. He must have Uhtred.

The love-hate relationship between Alfred the Great and the great warrior Uhtred had been the central axis of the Saxon Tales. Although Alfred is dead, Uhtred is still bound to his kingdom through bonds of loyalty, family and property. Uhtred dislikes and disrespects the priests who gather around Alfred in his last days — not only because of his hostility to the Christian religion, but also because of their pious belief that the Danes can be defeated through prayer and missionary work. Uhtred knows that defeating the Danish threat will take swords, shields and the lives of the men who wield them, and he uses the lands and wealth gifted to him by Alfred to build up a core of loyal retainers.

History is kind to Uhtred in that the Danes do not immediately use the opportunity of Alfred’s death to attack his kingdom. This allows him to try his hand at chicanery by setting up a bogus fortune-telling operation to mislead the Danes and goad them into battle. This works a little too well, and the Danes land a large force in the east. Uhtred manages to block the Danish advance and set up a climactic battle, but the new king, Edward, listens to the counsel of his priests and delays until reinforcements are available.

It is the nature of this particular conflict that makes it all too obvious how much the death of Alfred impacts Cornwell’s narrative. The conflict between Uhtred and Alfred, and the inner conflict between loyalty and desire for Uhtred, has been a hallmark of the earlier books. Here, the conflict is diminished, partly because Edward is a much less interesting character, and partly because Uhtred’s allegiance to him is more secure.

Eventually, the Danish forces coalesce, and Uhtred is able to draw his forces together to face them. Cornwell writes about battle with verve and attention to detail, and here he lets Uhtred glory in the joy of slaughter while taking on a whole raft of enemies and traitors.

DEATH OF KINGS is not the conclusion of the Saxon Tales, but part of the saga ends here, and it’s a tremendous loss to see Alfred the Great slip away into history. But no king’s reign is forever, and no peace is permanent. Cornwell’s Wessex will remain besieged by enemies and will need Uhtred in the breach, wielding his long sword and short dagger, to fend off the forces that would destroy it.

Book Reviews, Literary


<a href="">The Fort</a> Book Cover
The Fort Fiction Harper Paperbacks 496

In the summer of 1779, as the major fighting of the Revolutionary War moves to the South, a British force consisting of fewer than a thousand Scottish infantry and backed by three sloops-of-war sails to the fogbound coast of New England.

Bernard Cornwell writes about war and battle, which means that he also writes about stupidity. Writing about the stupid things officers in charge do when soldiers are in the field is as respectable as Tennyson (someone had blunder’d) and at least as old as Homer (Achilles sulking in his tent), probably older. There is something about military command that brings out the worst in some commanders; whether they are blind, stubborn, pig-headed, cowardly, useless, or just plain dumb, they can lead soldiers into the worst kind of trouble. “I am sick and tired of disaster and the fools that bring disaster upon us,” wrote one New York private about a particularly idiotic Civil War general.

The Revolutionary War battle that Cornwell writes about in THE FORT is an obscure one, whose most famous participants (as Cornwell notes) are better known for their appearance in heroic poetry related to other conflicts. The action takes place in Maine, near an obscure settlement with a tongue-twisting Indian name, a short ways up the Penobscot River. The British are building a fort there, which will serve as a base for the Royal Navy to harass rebel shipping in and out of Boston. The Americans respond by sending an expedition to kill or capture the veteran British regiments, and that’s where the trouble starts.

Because it’s difficult moving overland through the rocky and thickly forested terrain of the Maine coast, the troops have to be sent by water. And since the threat posed by these particular British regiments is mainly to Boston’s commerce, and not to the Continental Army itself, the troops that are available are green Massachusetts militiamen. This requires a great deal of coordination between the Continental Navy ships that are carrying and supporting the militia and the citizen-soldiers who make it up. That did not happen, and Cornwell glories in comparing the petty and small-minded rivalry between the army and navy — as well as between the militia’s army and artillery — with the stiff-upper-lip professionalism of the British.

In your typical Bernard Cornwell novel, what happens when you get a situation like this is that the hero — tough-minded, highly skilled, incapable of suffering fools — takes charge and slices through the enemy lines like a rolling ball of butcher knives. This is not a typical Cornwell novel. The biggest hero on the American side is Paul Revere, later to get eternal fame in Longfellow’s poem, and Cornwell paints him as shallow, vain and ineffectual. His counterpart in fame on the British side is Lieutenant John Moore, who will later become a General whose death in Spain fighting Napoleon will be recorded by the poet Charles Wolfe (and by Cornwell in his Richard Sharpe series). Moore is more in the cut of Cornwell’s heroes, but here he is just a young lieutenant getting his first taste of battle.

It is the nature of this particular battle, unfortunately, that it is attended with unimportant political issues, petty rivalries, and unproductive councils of war. What action there is tends to be short and sharp, illuminated by Cornwell’s thorough knowledge of the era’s weapons and tactics, and enlivened by blood and gore sufficient enough for any armchair warrior.

THE FORT will please Cornwell’s loyal readers, as well as fans of Revolutionary-era historical fiction. But there are drawbacks, prominent among them Cornwell’s insistence on giving minor fictional characters names that start with the letter F — a tactic that is more annoying than helpful. The non-military characters, particularly the American Loyalist refugees, aren’t drawn with a great degree of subtlety. And the battle itself is so obscure that one wonders why Cornwell was drawn to the subject matter. But given his prolific and honorable career, no one can fault him for writing about a forgotten piece of history that interests him deeply. THE FORT is an outstanding effort by a master of the genre.