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The Burning Land is the fifth book in Bernard Cornwell's series set in the time of Alfred the Great. The stories follow Uhtred, a Saxon raised by Danes at a time where what we know as England was fought for by these two peoples. Uhtred has to this point risen to be the 'go to guy' for Alfred when it comes to battle, despite Uhtred disliking the pious king and Alfred frowning disliking the Saxon/Danish warrior's disregard for Christianity.
The books have followed a path which usually involves two significant battles as well as some political posturing. Uhtred's childhood upbringing and birthright has enabled Cornwell to place him on both sides of the battle at times, and usually common foes are the enemy, so his allegiances rarely trouble the greater good as it were. Here though, while the storytelling is flowing and as exciting as ever where our hero is concerned, the flipping between sides begins to get a bit predictable and therefore the book loses some of its appeal. A series of decent length such as this needs to have variety, and while the content certain allows for this by following a historical path and battles, the format and Uhtred's allegiances mirror themselves somewhat from book to book.
I'm in a quandry of sorts. Do I regard this as part of the series, or as if I was reading this without prior knowledge? Were it the latter, I'd no doubt be singing its praises - the villains are mean and violent, the heroes matching the violence whilst trying to maintain the moral upper hand. The battles are well described and exciting to read. The battle strategies penned by Cornwell speak of knowledge, understanding and research. The characters are clear and the scenery vivid, it's the sort of book that focuses well on the details to give you that clear mental image. However, I can't ignore the fact that I have read the four previous books in the series, and I just wished for something a bit different in a way, even if it were slightly different. The twists have stopped being twists and have started becoming predictable, the enemies evident from the start even if on the same 'side' whereas before they were not so easy to spot; the familiar narrative written in the first person from Uhtred is even starting to get a bit constant and less enticing.
Perhaps it's just that I have read a few of them in a row, whereas normally I space Cornwell's books out a bit more. I have previously taken my time with them, as they are very detailed, whereas my mum has always said she races through them. This may be why, as I have raced through this one what with Cornwell's writing style a more familiar thing to me on a constant level. This is still a very good book, and one I would highly recommend. It gives you a good history lesson as well, the author including a historical note at the end which recaps the events in the book from a slightly more factual point of view rather than the occasional bias and fictional elements thrown in. It is, after all, historical fiction, and having something concrete like records of history to fall back on gives a good grounding for some exciting tales.
I look forward to reading the sixth book in the series, Death of Kings. I will however give it a bit of a break until I do so. I have a ridiculously large selection of books to read, and reading Cornwell after Cornwell may not be the best way to go about his work. Recommended, but with some disappointment.