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Book Review: The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell

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Bernard Cornwell is my favorite historical novelist of all time. No one delves into history and comes back with a humdinger of an action-packed and fact-filled story as he does. I first found out about him because I’m a Sean Bean fan, too. I watched a Richard Sharpe movie (set in the Napoleonic War) and discovered that the British series was based on the Cornwell novels. Curious, I picked up the books and started reading. I’ve been reading Cornwell ever since, and I’ve tracked him and his heroes throughout the ages.

His latest series is called the “Saxon Series” and it’s set in the 9th century in England. The books, four of them so far with more coming, center on King Alfred the Great’s war with the Danes (also known as the Vikings). I love the action and the sheer savagery of the tale and characters Cornwell has chosen to bring to life. His main characters are fictional, but many of them are straight out of history. King Alfred was real, and so was Ubba Lothbroksson, the Viking champion and great warrior. However, Cornwell shoehorns the lives — and deaths — of real people into his story.

The books are told in the first-person, from the main character’s point of view many years later. His name is Uhtred, and he was born an Englishman. However, due to the huge changes in his life, Uhtred becomes known by many names and his allegiances are mercurial. He starts out with the English in the first novel, The Last Kingdom, but after his father falls to the Danes in battle, he’s raised by Earl Ragnar, one of the fiercest Viking warriors to ever take the field.

The story sounds true. For anyone who’s studied history, and I have, captives raised by other cultures than their own aren’t a surprise. History is littered with such individuals. Those people often have an impact on the way their lives and the lives of others play out. Uhtred becomes one of those people.

Cornwell’s depiction of Viking life and the bloodthirstiness of those warriors is well done. I loved how he started out with Uhtred as a ten year old boy and let him grow up among the rough-and-tumble Danes with death more or less as his constant companion. But, as all of Cornwell’s best heroes do, Uhtred rises to the occasion each and every time and faces down the threats and opponents that are in his way.

The author creates a large and twisted tapestry in the tale. Childhood friends and villains show up again and again in Uhtred’s life, and they bring wanted and unwanted changes. One of the most telling events in Uhtred’s young life is when Sven, the son of Kjartan, kidnaps Ragnar’s young daughter and strips her out in the forest. Uhtred and Ragnar’s son save her just in time. Later, though, Ragnar takes his vengeance on Sven by blinding him in one eye. Kjartan is a shipbuilder, an important man in the Viking community, but he’s powerless before Ragnar’s rage. However, that act of vengeance comes back to haunt Ragnar and Uhtred. Nothing is ever forgiven among these people, and they carry long grudges.

The battle scenes are particularly harsh and described well. I felt as though I were standing in the shield wall next to Uhtred when he faced battle. I could feel Wasp-Sting and Serpent-Breath in my hand as he used them to defeat and kill his enemies.

The rock and roll of the waves against the Viking longships as they journeyed to other lands and fought battles on the sea is amazing. Cornwell brings that whole world to life so easily it’s breathtaking.

The The Last Kingdom ends while Uhtred is young and has yet to see his newborn son. He’s on his way there on the last page of this first book, and if I know anything about his life, the way isn’t going to be easy. I can’t wait.

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About Mel Odom

  • Just so you know, the other books in the series are equally gripping. I also recommend his series set in the Hundred Years War and his Arthurian series. Both are terrific.