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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.
Mel was alone with Lawrence, he breathed faintly, forced a smile at her.
“I’m dying aren’t I?” He asked.
“No babes, hang in there, we’ll sort this.” Mel said, her eyes dropping to avoid the truth. She ran her fingers over the face of the phone and glanced at the door as if to see if Lockley was there, and then back at the bloodied face of Lawrence.
“The pain is going lover,” He said softly. “Feeling warm, like I’m drunk.” He paused to regain a bit of strength. “Why do they want you?”
“I don’t know. John is looking after me, he’s from the police.”
“You know,” Lawrence said. “I know you don’t feel the same, but I kinda love you.” Mel sighed and looked away, ashamed at the truth “I just want you to know…” Lawrence continued. “…take care. I know you can get through this.”
“Lawrence, what are you talking about? You’re gonna get better and John will get the guys who did this to you, then we’re gonna go and have a blast.” Lawrence smiled, closing his eyes. Mel was beginning to get blurry on him, but that may have been the tears.
“You know that’s not true, but I’m not afraid now,” He said. He grabbed her arm in a sudden surge of energy. “Get a man who looks after you properly. And you need to fall in love.”
“I know.” Mel sobbed holding Lawrence’s hand tight. “I’m sorry,” She let out a great sob as he sighed deeply. Her head fell to Lawrence’s chest, but his hand fell limp.
Her head jerked up with a start, her eyes wide in horror.
“Law?” His chest did not move and his eyes stared vacant at the ceiling. “No, not again,” She cried out. “I’m so sorry babes.”
Ever wondered how a writer reaches his novel? Yes, me too. I am not sure how others get to where they are, but the following is how I came to have the story which is ‘The Bioborg File,’ a sci-fi novel set in south England with man/machines for heroes.
Sometime in the distant 1990’s there was a fantastic computer game, ‘Synndicate’ by Bullfrog, which involved a ‘god-mode’ view of four cyborgs. Set in a dystopian future ruled by companies (Syndicates). As the cyborgs, your jobs is to do various missions and take over the world. In a word, this was the beginning, the inspiration, the reason for the ‘Bioborg File’. I loved the idea of people having robotics added to them. Thus were born the Bioborgs.
I equipped them in trenchcoats because they could hide weapons easier. (Also in the ‘Untouchables’ it looked cool!) Terminator, the Untouchables and many other films have shotguns, so this became the weapon of choice for Lockley, my hero. With research into cybernetics, both real and sci-fi, so the background was building up.Inspiration came from films such as ‘Terminator’ ‘Universal Soldier’ ‘ Alien’ and RPG’s of Shadowrun, and also Warhammer 40.000 wargaming.I did not was a parody or rip-off of the films and books and games, and with a mixture and immagaination, my baby was being it’s own world.
Lockley is not a robot but a man with robotics, but his commitment meant he could have little emotion. He is good looking, brave and hard as steel.He is not based on anyone person. He has his own weaknesses and interests, and has friends. He grumbles at roadworks like the rest of us, and prefers the weather to be sunny.
Mel is the other main character. An unwilling heroine. She smokes too much, screams too much and is not brave. She hates Lockley, and would rather be clubbing. She is based on several people, but mainly loosely based on someone I once knew. She has had several names over the years, but I settled with ‘Mel’ after Melissa Joan Hart, who is a real hottie in Sabrina the Teenage witch.
The bad guys are not all bad. To Hitler he was a good guy, to Al Queada they are right and we are the bad guys. These ‘bad guys’ have families and friends, sometimes they are gentle. I hate Holloywood portrayal of bad guys who only hate. Seriously, would a bad guy shoot a henchmen in cold blood becuase he failed to kill the good guys? When people failed Hitler he replaced them, maybe sent them for trial, but did not shoot them in the chancellory. The same applies for the way that i make bad guys. They are bad because they are on the ‘other side’. They still love people, they are not stupid and at one point in the novel, Lockley is in the office of the enemy leader. On his desk is a photograph of his daughters. And why not? He loves them, and they will cry when/if he dies. I try to make the baddies like real, rounded characters so they are believable, and possibly even some sympathy with them.
Why set a novel in south England. Simply because I know it. I cannot set a novel in New York as I have never been there. Almost all locations are real or based on those that i have been too. A committed fan could trace the routes that the characters take. I also wanted a book set in England as most Hollywood films are set in America, which is boring and repetive and also harder to associate with being English. I want the book to be recognisable.
As i write, i try to think what is similar in real life? The head quarters of the Bioborgs is a business. There will be posti-its about, and coffee machines. They call each other by their Christian names. Biobrogs are armed but they are not soldiers. The MD is in charge, not a general. Staff will complain about the state of the toilets and the cost of the canteen. In a word, it is fiction in a real England.
Here is a list of some websites i like. Some are personal and some i like as they are useful for writing, research or inspiration.
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page Wikipedia, always useful point to start any research.
- http://www.games-workshop.com/gws/ Games Workshop. I live my life by Warhammer and Warhammer 40K. It has been an inspiration across the years for me as well as keeping me sane (!)
- http://www.imagenetion.com/ Imagenetion. Fantasy images by many great artists, including my favourite, Louis Royo.
- http://www.bbc.co.uk/ BBC. A good news source, sometimes biased but some fantastic radio.
Sharpe’s Triumph is the second in the ‘Sharpe’ series but the first that I have read. It does not rely on the reader having read the previous book and is a complete book in itself. The story follows Sgt Richard Sharpe up to the Battle of Assaye in India 1803. As with many Bernard Cornwell books, it mixes real events with fiction.
The book is fantastic, creating a great atmosphere in the British army of 19th century India. The characters are all believable and there are many likable ones. I was disappointed and upset when one character died, showing how expert Cornwell is at making real characters. The ‘baddies’ are not the totally evil guys that frequent Hollywood and lesser novels. They are real people, some misguided, some nasty but all with balanced believability and with other interests. They are driven by duty, lust, money, hatred or power. Sharpe too, is not all good. He has doubts some nasty thoughts and acts in a believable Victorian way.
The historical facts bathe the book so tiny details that a reader may not notice add to the flavour – such as the blackened faces of riflemen from firing flintlocks constantly. I did find one mistake which i was disappointed at. The 74th Highland Regiment was actually called Campbell’s Highlanders until 1845. A simple fact maybe, but when he has put so much detail in the rest of thebook, a minor and easy to find detail should have been ironed out.
Do i have criticisms? Not really, but if I search for them, there is possibly too much detail in the real world. I wanted more of a fiction story rather than so much time spent decribing the battle. As much as i enjoy history, I would rather this was in historybooks and not fictional books.
‘Burning Land’, by Bernard Cornwell is the 5th book in the series about Uhtred of Babbenberg. It is a stand alone novel, referring back to the previous but not relying on them, which i believe is a strong point, especially as i have not read the other four novels. Set in 890AD, it pitches Vikings against Saxons, and instantly, Cornwell transports us back to the dark, violent and dirty times. No niceities here, this novel is hard hitting, creating a desperate struggle for survival. The names of the places are in Old English, rather than modern English, but there is a short translation at the beggining. I could not put this down, it was enthralling, and the characters believeable. Cornwell has excelled himself once more.
I always read lots of different stuff at the same time. One book for lunch time, one for before bed etc. So here is a list of books i am reading:
‘The Dark of the Sun’ Wilbur Smith. This is going very well, although I went into it with scepticism, following the disappointment of ‘Assegai’. Set in modern days, following a group of mercenaries in Africa, I have been impressed. A review will be up soon.
The Bible: Part way through the Old Testament, difficult going, but very interesting and helping my Christian journey.
‘Young Fur Traders’ RM Ballantyne. Tried this when i was younger. Very old book, but never completed it. Have only just started and it is great so far. Written in 1856 so the style is unlike much written today.
Warhammer and Warhammer 40K Rulebook. Not novels, but i read the rules over and over especially Warhammer as they have only recently come out and so i am not up to date with them. Great game to get into as it has been a great inspiration to me across the years.