The Burning Land is the fifth volume in The Saxon Stories which tell the story of Uhtred, a Saxon warrior trying to reclaim his birthright after being captured by the Danes as a child.
Although Uhtred is still bound by his oath of loyalty to Alfred, the loss of his wife in childbirth has left Uhtred angry and when he accidentally causes the death of a priest at court, Uhtred has no choice but to flee. Uhtred heads north, intent on reclaiming Bebbanburg from his uncle, but he soon realises he does not have enough men to take the stronghold.
Hearing rumours Alfred has died, Uhtred reunites with his Danish brother, Ragnar Ragnarson, who is amassing a great army to take Wessex. However, just as Uhtred is about to join Ragnar, he receives a summons from Alfred’s daughter, Aethelflaed, who needs his help. Sore at Alfred, Uhtred wants nothing more than to ignore his daughter’s request but he has long had a soft spot for the lady in question. Uhtred finds himself torn between his loyalty to Ragnar and his love for Aethelflaed who he believes is the golden lady in the prophecy Ursula once revealed to him.
When Uhtred chooses to go to Aethelflaed, he is forced to abandon Ragnar but it isn’t long before he realises he has been manipulated by Alfred who knew Uhtred would respond to a request for help from Aethelflaed rather than himself. Once again, Uhtred finds himself under Alfred’s yoke, but at what cost?
The Burning Land gets off to quite a slow start but it marks a great period of transition in the life of Uhtred which I suspect will be crucial in the later books. The death of Gisela does not come as a huge surprise as Cornwell foreshadowed the tragedy in the previous book and while Uhtred is bereft at her loss, as a reader I barely felt anything as Gisela was never fleshed out enough as a character for her to have meant anything to me. However, the purpose of Gisela’s death is to make Uhtred feel aimless and to force a confrontation with Alfred which leads to the death of a priest and Uhtred having a price on his head.
Alfred has become increasingly unlikeable throughout this series as he manipulates Uhtred into carrying out his deeds while continuing to be entirely ungrateful, however this time Uhtred is pushed too far and breaks with the man. Fleeing north, Uhtred decides to reclaim Bebbanburg but quickly realises he does not have enough men to accomplish this feat so he reunites with Ragnar who holds Dunholm. Together, Uhtred and Ragnar begin amassing an army big enough to take Wessex which has become vulnerable due to Alfred’s failing health.
Just as it seems Uhtred has chosen to side with the Danish cause once again, the unexpected happens when he is reminded of the oath of loyalty he once made to Aethelflaed who has been shut up in a convent by her husband who wants to divorce her. Going to Aethelflaed’s aid will mean abandoning Ragnar, but while Uhtred seems torn, the decision to go is an obvious one since Uhtred is reminded his oath to her was borne out of love. Reminded of the prophecy of the golden-haired woman revealed so long ago by his lover Ursula, Uhtred is now convinced Aethelflaed is that woman and that their fates are inexorably linked.
As Mercia is threatened by the advancing Danes, Aethelflaed tries to rally support from her husband’s men but they abandon her and all seems lost until Alfred’s son, Edward, arrives with troops from Wessex. It is at this point that Uhtred learns of Alfred’s deception and refuses to swear an oath of loyalty to Edward, however Uhtred begins to teach the young heir how to win so they can take the fight to the Danes. Alfred’s children prove to be far more appreciative of Uhtred than their father ever was, and you can see the difference in the way Uhtred responds to them.
While Uhtred seems no closer in his quest to regain his birthright by the end of this story, he does seem to have found renewed purpose in supporting Alfred’s children who will prove integral in achieving Alfred’s vision of a united England.