Review: “The Last Kingdom,” By bernard Cornwell
(HarperCollins -ISBN 978-0-00-721801)
Earl Uhtred of Bebbanburg is orphaned as a young boy by invading Danes who take him into slavery. However, impressed with Uhtred, he is adopted by the Danish leader, Ragnar. Taught the Viking way, Uhtred struggles with who he is – English or Dane, Christian or Pagan. The world is changing around him, the four kingdoms of England are dying until only Wessex is left, held by the weak King Alfred. Soon it will be invaded to become a Danish kingdom.
But Uhtred says ‘Fate is everything’ and all is not as it seems…
Every Englishman should know that Alfred the Great is the only English monarch to take the ‘Great’ suffix, and that he united England into a single nation. (if you don’t then Google it now!). “The Last Kingdom,” is the fictionalisation of this struggle, told from the view of Uhtred. This being the first novel of eight (according to Cornwell although only six at present) it sets the world up. We learn who Uhtred is, and it introduces many characters, both real and fictional.
In Bernard Cornwell, I have come to expect heroics and horror, bravery and savagery wrapped up in a gritty novel that I can’t put down. This does not disappoint.
Uhtred’s character is much of the time, ignoring modern niceties and morals, he womanises and kills with the best of them. Despite this, he is still a lovable character to connect with. He has his struggles with faith and loyalties, he would love to go home but duty calls. In his younger days in the novel, he sees his religion less to do with faith and more with what he can get out of it. To him, an early teenage warrior, the Christian god is weak and worshipped by weeping men on their knees. Thor and Odin are worshipped by great warriors and an after life of maidens, drinking and fighting awaits.
The character of Alfred could have been saccharin, but Cornwell is no sycophant. Alfred is not a great warrior, not a strong, or moral saint. He is portrayed accurately, such as womanising in his early life and weak through illness later on. His strength as a leader is faith, education and vision. The story is not a pretty mythical story of heroic English against savage Vikings; it is a struggle of fierce warriors, pillaging, shield walls and death.
The book keeps the reader gripped, as when one problem is about to be solved a sudden twist steals the reader of gratification of completion and keeps the desire to continue reading. It is filled with intentional irony, as readers know the historical outcome, yet the Danes are confident that the last English nation will fall and be theirs. To them, Alfred is a weak and useless king, and Wessex has no decent warriors. The Christian god has abandoned them and that is why they will fall…
Yet what of the downsides of the novel? I struggle to find any. Some characters have similar names (Odda and Ubba) and unusual place names. The storyline is about him growing up from becoming an orphan to a great warrior rather than any set quest, but this is intentional as there is still much more story to tell.