The enemy is massing on the borders, a united force for once. The king, a man of many victories, is in failing health, and his heir is an untested youth.
Uthred, the king’s champion, leads his country’s forces to war, but his victory is soured by personal tragedy and by the envy of the king’s court. So he breaks with the king and takes off for the land of his birth, determined to resist all calls for his return. That is, until one unexpected request…
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.