Review: The Flame Bearer – Bernard Cornwell

5 of 5 stars

Series: The Last Kingdom 10

My version: Hardback
Historical Fiction England, Vikings
Harper Collins
Bought signed

“From the day it was stolen from me I had dreamed of recapturing Bebbanburg. The great fort that was almost an island, it was massive, it could only be approached on land by a single narrow track – and it was mine.”

Britain is in a state of uneasy peace. Northumbria’s Viking ruler, Sigtryggr, and Mercia’s Saxon Queen Æthelflæd have agreed a truce. And so England’s greatest warrior, Uhtred of Bebbanburg, at last has the chance to take back the home his traitorous uncle stole from him so many years ago – and which his scheming cousin still occupies.

But fate is inexorable and the enemies Uhtred had made and the oaths he has sworn combine to distract him from his dream of recapturing Bebbanburg. New enemies enter the fight for England’s kingdoms: the redoubtable Constantin of Scotland seizes and opportunity for conquest and leads his armies south. Britain’s perilous peace threatens to turn into a war of annihilation.

But Uhtred is determined that nothing, neither the new enemies nor the old foes who combine against him, will keep him from his birthright. He is the Lord of Bebbanburg, but he will need all the skills he has learned in a lifetime of war to make his dream come true.

So Bernard Cornwell deals with the inevitable. Uhtred recapturing Bebbanburg. We’ve known it’s coming right from the beginning, it was always all about over how many books. Authors generally like to do things in multiples of three, so number nine would perhaps have been a good place to stop. But no, there’s one more. And, luckily for us, there’s both enough going on here and no sign of BC letting up on the quality, just because he’s got to the finishing line.

The Flame Bearer starts some three years after the previous book, The Empty Throne. That’s quite a break, all in all, but does allow some of the characters and events of the previous book time to settle down and be more convincing, when he brings them forward, back into Uhtred’s story. There is much less of a formula feel to The Flame Bearer too, this just feels better, more honest, more passion and feeling to the writing than some of the previous books. Bernard Cornwell did, if I remember right, start out with the aim of telling about his own ancestors, and maybe that depth of connection with the character and events is what is now infusing his writing. This doesn’t mean he has abandoned all his old favourites though, he still likes his “And…” at the ends of sections, at the ends of chapters, at the start of chapters. Just about anywhere, then. ‘Battle joy,’ ‘song of slaughter’ make an appearance of course. ‘Battle song of slaughter,’ too probably. I didn’t take a note but I’ll be that’s in there too. Maybe it’s like the logo on the back pocket of your Levi’s jeans? How you tell a Cornwell from the knock-offs.

The Flame Bearer signatureEven at this late stage in the series (if you read the every last line of the author’s note, you’ll know why I use that phrase), he still has new elements to introduce. There’s more of his trusty right-hand man, Finan. He’s a good character, and not just a foil, he’s an interesting character with a real feeling of depth to him, some of which gets explained here. He’s hopefully one for the future as well.

As I mentioned, this doesn’t seem to be the end of Uhtred. I’d guess that BC is intending having a couple of years ‘off’ from writing The Last Kingdom books, and will return to after a couple of other books. I’m thinking that from the start, there was the feeling that Uhtred was recounting his story at the end of his life, to someone? I think so. So, as he doesn’t clearly die in battle, but as an olds man, and he isn’t that here, we have some more books to look forward to.

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