Having somehow become hooked on certain kinds of historical adventure fiction (sea stories and Viking-era England, apparently), I spent several months scouring bookstores trying to snuffle out a used or remaindered or overstock (and therefore affordable to me) copy of Bernard Cornwell’s latest installment of his Saxon stories. My father had left the first four books with me, and they had captured the swash-buckling bits of my imagination.
The Burning Land is nowhere near as good as those others. I don’t know if Cornwell’s writing fell off, or if I’m just getting too used to the tropes he’s using (that can happen, especially in a series; you don’t want to read the same thing over and over again, even when you sort of do), but I was disappointed in what I felt was an over-reliance on shorthand and established characterization. Sure, five books in readers should already be pretty familiar with the characters, but that doesn’t mean you stop developing them altogether. Characters in The Burning Land were treading water between fight scenes, arguing inconsequentially about the same goals they’ve been arguing about since book one, the same conflicting loyalties, blah blah blah. Edward was the only interesting new character, though more for his potential than anything else, and while it was good to see Æthelflaed take a stronger, more active role (which Cornwell feels the need to justify in the historical note at the back), I’m bothered by the fact that she reads so much like a direct lift of the “strong woman” archetype in trashy high fantasy fiction, like David Eddings’ Belgariad books. Here, as in those other books, she’s more the strong-woman-as-plot-device rather than because of the interesting things it can do for her as a character, and I don’t see that as a positive direction for this series. I’ll read the next one (no doubt due out next year, or possibly even later this year, given Cornwell’s insane pace), but he’s going to have to step up the quality to hold my interest much after that.
Next up is The Atrocity Archives, by Charles Stross.