Skip to main content

The Flame Bearer


The Flame Bearer

There is a point in THE FLAME BEARER when Uhtred, our hero, kills a Norse warrior who is trying to burn his boat. Uhtred steals the dying man’s sword, but punctiliously gives him the rusty old sword that he had been using, so that the dying man can die with his hand on the hilt of a sword. This is done, Uhtred explains, so that the dead man can make his way to the long-hall of Valhalla and find a seat at the benches and quaff his fill of mead. Uhtred also muses that the particular bench full of men he has sent there must be getting awfully crowded, and then proceeds to slay someone else who was foolish enough to take him on.

I have no idea exactly how many men Uhtred the Wicked has killed in the Saxon Chronicles, of which THE FLAME BEARER is the latest entry. I am sure that there is some other Cornwell superfan out there, someone more mathematically minded than I am, who has gone to the time and trouble to parse the various books and make a reasonable count. But I have no wish to do that. Uhtred goes into the shield wall in every book and slays more than his share, and that is plenty for me.

"Cornwell’s sturdy prose matches its indomitable hero, blow for blow, body for body. THE FLAME BEARER is a culmination, not only for Uhtred’s own story, but for the hopes and ambitions of the series."

Despite his active life and frequent participation in melees large and small, Uhtred has survived into an unpleasant and suspicious old age. He’s able to transform himself convincingly into the form of a crooked-backed beggar while on a scouting trip (with the help of an underling who delights in calling him his grandfather). His suspicious nature serves him well early in the book, as he sniffs out a wicked Saxon plot against the ruler of Northumbria, leading to a highly effective moment when he unmasks treachery in the Saxon court.

But the Saxon threat to Northumbria is only blunted temporarily, which means that Uhtred has to make preparations for taking Bebbanburg, the Northumbrian stronghold where he is the rightful heir. Uhtred has come within a whisker of taking the fort and has spoken of it (sometimes to the point of tedium) in earlier books. Now he has the men to do it, but the fort is contested by Viking invaders and Scottish warlords and by a Saxon noble who wants Bebbanburg to spite Uhtred. Uthred muses that if all these powerful forces are against him, that means he needs fate on his side, and the main issue in THE FLAME BEARER is if that inexorable fate is still on his side.

Uhtred is aided, sort of, by a “mad bishop,” a religious eccentric whose ravings are coupled with a disrespectful attitude that Uhtred secretly admires. The Saxon Chronicles are rife with Uhtred’s complaints about Christianity, and the mad bishop’s antics mostly serve to prove his point. As it turns out, the mad bishop collects spurious religious artifacts that enables Uhtred to put his iconoclastic spirit to good use.

Cornwell promises that this 10th volume is not the end of the Saxon Chronicles, which is a good thing for anyone who enjoys these books (as well as the BBC America television series that’s based on previous installments). But even if the series ended here, it would be a crowning achievement. Cornwell’s sturdy prose matches its indomitable hero, blow for blow, body for body. THE FLAME BEARER is a culmination, not only for Uhtred’s own story, but for the hopes and ambitions of the series. What comes after can only add to the excellence of these novels, now that the series has come full circle at last.

Reviewed by Curtis Edmonds on December 2, 2016

The Flame Bearer
by Bernard Cornwell

  • Publication Date: October 31, 2017
  • Genres: Adventure, Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0062250809
  • ISBN-13: 9780062250803