The Last Kingdom
By Bernard Cornwell
Harper Collins Publishers
I’m on a mission to read all the Cornwell books in my library and that’s a rather long list so it may take me a while. The good news is that I will be entertained by the challenge I’m setting for myself. This latest series I’m starting features Saxons and that’s a topic I fully enjoy.
Uhtred, a boy of ten, joins his father in battle against the invading Danes. He’s the son of a nobleman and, thanks to the death of his oldest brother during the battle, heir to his father’s English lands. In the same battle that leaves his father and brother dead, Uhtred is captured by the Danes. Earl Ragnar, the Danish chieftain that defeated his father, raises Uhtred as his own teaching him to fight like a Viking. Expected to fight the English alongside his Danish tribe, he fights an internal battle between his loyalty to Ragnar, who loved him as a son, and to his English heritage and the new king, Alfred. Uhtred feels little loyalty toward Alfred and doesn’t like him on a personal level, but he clings to his dream of ruling his homelands someday. Fortunately for Uhtred, he prefers battle to loyalties and would rather fight than worry about the person on the other side of the shield wall or political implications.
The Danish way of life portrayed in this book is brutal but it’s hard to dislike the Danes simply because of the love they show for Uhtred, and even when he decides that he must fight for the English, don’t hold it against him as they value his sense of loyalty which they instilled in him. Alfred is a thoroughly unlikable person, and along with Uhtred, I had trouble liking him but you still have to appreciate his cunning. Uhtred managed several times to get caught up in Alfred’s plans and being young, cocky, and willing to think with his fists instead of his brain, he walks right into situations that get him in trouble. That’s also what makes him extraordinarily likable. He’s flawed, frequently irrational, and single minded in his thinking sometimes, but he believes what he’s doing is right and you agree with him.
Cornwell, and I have probably said this before, has an amazing talent for writing historical fiction. The details make his stories and each time I finish a book I immediately want to pick up the next in the series. I have been trying to pace myself so I don’t burn out because while I always enjoy his books, they tend toward the violent aspects of war and I sometimes find myself needing a break to forget the sound of swords crashing against bone.
Religion plays a large part in this story as Alfred is extremely pious but Uhtred, who veers more toward the pagan, is an equal opportunity believer who is happy to let his king think he has found god and secretly prefer to ask Thor and Odin for their assistance in battle. It’s an amusing side-story and I’m sure one that will be developed more as these types of religious battles seem to always find a place in Cornwell’s books. It’s never overpowering but always presents enough of an internal battle for a character to be an interesting element.
There are five books in the Saxon series and I’m looking forward to more.