The Flame Bearer is the tenth book in Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom series, and it caps off a run of faster-paced stories in over the last few novels.
In this installment, Uhtred sees the budding rivalries between the West Saxons, the Danes, and the Scots in Northumbria as both a threat and an opportunity for his claim to Bebbanburg. acts on his ambitions from the previous story (Warriors of the Storm), and the result is a brutal battle.
Leading up to the climax, Uhtred blunders his way from one step to the next, always with some semblance of a plan in mind, but loose enough for the reader to think he’s on his way to disaster. As I was reading, this felt like an intentional plot point where Uhtred’s confidence leads to drastic measures for him to gather information. In retrospect, I think these sections were a little questionable.
Uhtred has shown in the past that his overconfidence or his desperation can cause him to act quickly, if not wisely. These chapters just felt a little out of character for the older, wiser Uhtred we’ve come to know. I’m okay with chalking it up to his desperation to retake Bebbanburg, though.
I also enjoyed seeing a few younger characters get more time and development on the page. Aethelstan has quickly grown into my favorite character, and his transition from a supposed bastard into a Prince of Wessex is fully realized here in the initiative he takes in the final act and the ultimate leadership he shows on the battlefield. Uhtred the younger also displays the cunning, bravery, and ferocity he’s learned from his father in surprising ways.
Overall, I really enjoyed this novel. It followed a familiar formula from previous books, but that is to be expected by this point in the series. I still feel like I’m learning something new about Uhtred and some of the other characters with each book, and that’s progress.
Spoiler warning: I was honestly surprised that this was not the final book of the series. However, I think Cornwell has laid the groundwork with the story of the Flame Bearer in previous novels well enough that this story does not feel like a sudden turn. I’m excited to see what further developments come in future books. Spoilers end.