The Flame Bearer: Bernard Cornwell (2016)
Get your pitchforks and torches ready – I’ve been reading the Warrior Chronicles out of sequence!
I know it’s terrible, but in my defence the books I had never put that they were part of a series on the cover, and I was once burned by a spoilery blurb so I tend to ignore those too. As such I’ve read Uhtred’s adventures in a very strange order – beginning with Pale Horseman, then straight to Empty Throne, and now to The Flame Bearer. I fully intend to start again with Last Kingdom and do this properly but this one’s still fresh in my mind and so I’m reviewing it now!
The Flame Bearer follows Uhtred’s latest attempt to live out his dream of recapturing Bebbanburg, the childhood home of which he is the rightful lord. He has finally reached a point, after many years of struggle, where this is a real possibility, and his usurping cousin finally seems to be trapped. But with Scots and Norse causing trouble to the north and the Saxon kingdoms verging on a new war in the south, family vengeance is not as simple as it seems.
I really liked this book. I can’t say I loved it, but I enjoyed it immensely, mainly because it really is my sort of thing: We have some complex planning and politics, a smattering of religious and social satire, and a lot of the historical goodness that is the hallmark of Bernard Cornwell. Anyone who likes military history is almost guaranteed to like his work, and I’ve found he handles epic battles, minor skirmishes, and one-on-one combat brilliantly, all with just the right mix of detail and pace. Obviously it isn’t perfect but overall I’d highly recommend this.
One of my few criticisms is that for all that the story is very much driven by Uhtred’s obsession with retaking Bebbanburg, there is very little in the way of character development. The man at the end of the book is exactly the same as the man at the start, and given how central Uhtred is to these stories, we don’t really get much time with anyone else. Plot-driven is definitely the term for this book, so if you’re after a detailed delve into a complex and ever-changing mind, perhaps give this a miss. I like Uhtred as a character, but his mind is very much on one track – Bebbanburg is mine by right, therefore I will risk everything to have it!
On to some plus points: As with any Cornwell book this is researched to within an inch of its life, but still reads like an adventure and not a textbook. There is so much historical detail in here it’s unreal and it makes the world really fleshed-out and believable, and at no point did I feel like I was listening to a lecture: This is ‘world-building’ at its finest. The battle-scenes are as great as ever, and something I love about this book is that it isn’t armies of endless thousands facing each other, but small bands of a few hundred men, most of whom Uhtred knows by name. Everything feels that much closer and more personal, but still with the ‘epic’ feel of a great battle going on.
Now I know I’ve said Uhtred is single-minded and doesn’t really change, but I do find him well-written and disturbingly likeable. For a man driven by what is essentially just an angry sense of entitlement, he is endearing for his straightforwardness and honesty, his humour, for his dedication to his family and obviously for his bravery – note, not a lack of fear but real bravery in the face of it (in this book there’s an excellent moment where he’s psyching himself up for a fight and he admits to the reader that all warriors are terrified when they stand in the shieldwall, but they never speak of it aloud because that would spoil the stories). In many ways he’s only a step or two shy of being a villain, and if this was told from another POV he probably would be. But we’re in his head and we see his motives, and damn it, I can’t help but like the mad bastard!
Overall this was a highly enjoyable read and I breezed through it in a week of lunchtimes. If you like history and adventure then pick this up (but probably best to read the other books first!).