The Flame Bearer by Bernard Cornwell
Historical fiction author Bernard Cornwell is probably my favorite current writer. Cornwell’s Saxon Tales—now known collectively as “The Last Kingdom” due to the successful TV show—are among his best work. And of that work, The Flame Bearer is the finest novel so far. I think it may be destined to become one of my all-time favorite books.
The Flame Bearer is packed with a plethora of ingredients for a successful story—passion, war, subject expertise, larger than life characters and a rocking good tale well told. In this, the tenth book of the series, Uthred of Bebbanburg returns to the fortress he was robbed of as a child to retake it by force and become its lord once again. This is a culmination of nine books worth of war and toil. Uthred has served King Alfred and now serves his son King Edward in order to make a united kingdom of all of Britain’s English-speaking peoples. As the novel unfolds, three of the four English kingdoms are united under Edward, all that is left is Northumbria, the northern part of what is being called Englaland.
Edward is facing resistance on several fronts—the Danes to the north mostly, and the Scots north of them. Against this backdrop, Uthred, with his son Uthred and all the warriors he can scrape up, launch their final plan to invade the fortress of Bebbenburg, stolen from him by his uncle while he was a child and now run by his cousin, who has no intention of handing it over peacefully. Of course, Bebbenburg is impregnable, impossible to breach on land and with limited access from the sea. This is what I love about Uthred. He’s sneaky and clever. From a young man serving Alfred, he has used deception, subterfuge and his enemies’ weaknesses to win battles where he is far outgunned (outsworded?). Currently Bebbanburg is being sieged by the Scots on land and the warriors inside are getting hungry. Uthred’s cousin is casting his net for other allies in Britain, and may have to forge an alliance with the hated Danes to keep his fortress. Uthred uses all these things to his advantage to try and get through Bebbanburg’s massive sea gates and fight hundreds of tough and experienced warriors by whom he is massively outnumbered. Cornwell’s bag of tricks is seemingly endless as Uthred outwits his opponents time after time, although not without cost.
Cornwell is one of the finest battle writers living, and the battle of Bebbenburg is one of his greatest literary achievements. At one point, Uthred is standing in the middle of the chaos, with warriors fighting to the death in the shield wall, surrounded by his enemies on all sides with little hope. That is when he is filled with battle-joy and knows that he will win this day or die. It’s a brilliant scene, evoking another age, a brutal way of life and the kind of men it took to thrive in that time.
Only the cleverest of men could win a battle with such odds. My money is definitely on Uthred. Regardless of success or failure, Northumbria still needs to be absorbed to make a united Englaland and the Danes are still a force to be reckoned with. So thank goodness Uthred’s story must continue. I hope it goes on for a while—I could read these books for the rest of my life.
Rating: ***** out of 5 stars
Monster Hunter Memoirs: Sinners by John Ringo and Larry Correia
John Ringo’s Chad Oliver Gardenier is a bit of a scoundrel. As seen in the first book in the Memoir trilogy, Monster Hunter Memoirs: Grunge (see a review here), Chad is a proud American and former military man now earning his living liquidating monsters for the private firm Monster Hunter International. Making a quick exit from Seattle after an altercation with the trailer park elves (he swore she told him she was 80!), he needs a quick transfer to another division of MHI. His only request? Anywhere but someplace with heat and humidity. So where does he end up? New Orleans of course!
Turns out the Big Easy needs help from someone like Chad, because something big is going down there. The monsters are getting larger and more dangerous, the werewolf population is growing exponentially and the vampires are feeling so crowded out they are rooting for MHI. Unheard of!
Sinners tells the story of Chad’s relocation to his new city. Despite the heat, he comes to love the culture, the food and the people. In a surprising development, he also begins to put down roots, buying a house and finding a place on the wall for his precious sword, Mo No Ken. The story is a quick read, not because it’s a short book, but because it moves at lightning speed. Chad goes from one emergency to the next, and things get particularly out of hand during the full moon. Especially when the combined forces of MHI, the federal government’s Monster Control Bureau and the local police can’t contain the craziness!
Through it all, Chad remains a unique character. He loves the ladies, bonds with his friends and coworkers and showers hellfire on evil monsters. In Sinners, he manages to take on groups of werewolves, magic killer frogs and giant mole rats. He gets little sleep as he hunts bad things through graveyards, city streets and on top of the local baseball stadium. Throughout the pandemonium, he retains his sense of humor and manages to grow as a character and a person. I love reading about this guy.
Sinners rewards readers with intense, non-stop action and characters to love, hate and care about. But don’t get too attached to anyone. It is Monster Hunter International, after all.
Rating: ****½ stars out of 5
A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
I hate to give away one word of the plot to this edgy horror thriller. Tremblay proves he’s a writer to watch as he spins the very modern tale of a middle-class family eroding bit by bit. All I will say is that the story is told from the point of view of an eight-year old girl, all grown up in the present, working with a reporter to write a book about the time her older sister was possessed by a demon. I read this novel in two sittings, in the second I just couldn’t put it down. In turns it is fascinating, horrifying and riveting. And that ending ... that one will stick with me for a while. If you like well-written horror, read this book! But try to have someone else in the room with you, preferably saying prayers. You'll thank me when the hair on the back of your neck starts to rise. It’s terrifying, in the best way possible. Highest recommendation.
Rating: ****½ stars out of 5