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Friday, July 30, 2010

The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell

Title: The Last Kingdom (Saxon Chronicles Bk 1)
Author: Bernard Cornwell
Publisher: Harpercollins, January 2006
Genre: Historical Fiction
Pages: 368
Rating 4 Crowns

Last Kingdom, the first in Cornwell’s Saxon Chronicles introduces us to Uhtred, the ten year old heir to the Earl of Northumbria. It is 866 AD, England is full of unrest and Uhtred’s home is attacked by the Danes, his family is killed and he is taken prisoner by the Danes and their leader Ragnar the Fearless and raised in the way of the Vikings. We see Uhtred grow into a young man as he is introduced to the joys of women, battle and freedom and he becomes like a son to Ragnar. Being English and never forgetting his lost home of Bebbanburg Castle in Northumbria, Uhtred is torn between loyalty to Ragnar and the Vikings and the desire to reclaim his family’s land. The Danes seek to conquer Alfred, the pious Christian King of the Kingdom of Wessex, the last remaining Kingdom in England that they haven’t conquered. In a particularly savage attack by a rival group on Ragnar’s family, Uhtred’s fate is decided for him. He puts forth the rumor that he was also killed in the attack and escapes to join the side of King Alfred against the Danes. He has one condition on fighting for Alfred and that is to marry the Saxon girl Mildrith. In the great siege of Guthrum, Alfred’s wife is captured by the Danes and Uhtred is offered up by King Alfred in a hostage exchange. Now back with the Danes and reunited with Ragnar the Fearless’ son Ragnar the Younger, Uhtred must search out his wife and decide on which side of the Battle his loyalties really lay.

I have got to hand it to Bernard Cornwell-he is in my opinion bar none one of the best writers of historical adventure out there today. The main character in this novel, Uhtred is dominant, unapologetic and I completely loved him. The novel was like a window into the Viking way of life at this time and learning the customs and beliefs of the Danes through the eyes of Uhtred was fascinating. By far though, the best part of the book was the battle scenes. Cornwell writes them in such a way that you can picture exactly what a shield wall looks like. You can clearly see in your mind Uhtred standing shoulder to shoulder with other men waiting to march forward, sword drawn, smelling the fear of those around him and trying hard to fend off extremely skilled opponents while trying not to slip in the gore covering the battlefield. There is so much more going in addition to the battles. It’s Viking against Saxon and Christianity against the Viking belief system and also Uhtred’s struggle with where he really belongs.

The only thing in the entire book that made me wonder just a bit was how the author portrays Alfred. This is supposed to be the “Great” English King Alfred who drove the Danes from England when all the odds were stacked against him. Here we get Alfred as somewhat of a weakling, completely wrapped up in his religion and easily influenced by those around him. Not exactly the guy you would picture saving the day for England is it? I think though that since this is the first book in what is now a five book series with more on the way, that we will see this character evolve quite a bit as the novels continue on.

I know when I first picked up this book I was a bit apprehensive thinking it was something that would be geared more towards male readers with all the battles and whatnot but the story is just so good I think it can be enjoyed by everyone. With his equally good Warlord Chronicles about King Arthur, Bernard Cornwell is quickly climbing my top ten list of favorite historical fiction authors.

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Jenny Q said...

I've only read one Cornwell and it was Redcoat, about the American Revolution. It was very good. I've got his King Arthur series on my list at the library but I think I'll try this one first. I've never read anything about this time period and Uhtred's perspective sounds fascinating. Great review!

Nadine, Chewy and Lilibell said...

I have this one on my TBR list, and after reading your review I think this will be the next book I read!

Mystica said...

I have read only one Cornwell myself and I loved it. I would like this book as well.

Unknown said...

I recently read his Agincourt and loved it. The war scenes were so well written and I agree that I was hesitant to read his works - but now I can't wait.

Maxine said...

Great review! I enjoyed this book too. I did read the next book in the series but I haven't finished the whole series yet; and I wondered too at Cornwall's portrayal of Alfred the Great. I look forward to seeing what you'll think of the remaining books.

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Audra said...

I have to admit I've blown off Cornwell's books because I thought they'd be too much like men's thrillers -- so this review makes me very excited! Thank you!