Book Review: The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell

8/10 A fun blend of modern story-telling and heroic style

Uhtred is a young boy living in Northumbria, one of the kingdoms of England. But in the year 866, the great Danish army lands with their eyes set on conquest. Uhtred is drawn into the war at a young age, seeing life from both sides. He grows as kingdoms fall, and he will have to choose which side he belongs to. Which side to die for.

Story

I’m not usually a fan of first-person stories, but the way Cornwell tells the story through Uhtred works well. Uhtred is aware that details become foggy over time, and the story is told from the perspective of a much older Uhtred who provides commentary and occasional updates on characters through the narration. It also allows Cornwell to indulge heavily in the older heroic style through Uhtred’s voice. But there are downsides to the narration, as is common for first-person, we only get to know one character in detail; Uhtred can only speculate to the inner workings and feelings of the other characters. The good news is that Uhtred is a compelling character to follow.

The only other problem that arises isn’t the fault of the perspective but rather the scope. The book takes place over 10 years, but it isn’t an especially long novel. This means there are several places where the pacing fast-forwards through time, pausing only to give us some dialogue (without setting any scene), then jumping back into full-speed to get to the next important event. I think the novel could have been longer (even just 10k words can do a lot) to even out the pacing.

At the end of the book, Cornwell provides a section where he discusses the history and why he made the changes or interpretations that he did. I really appreciate the honesty regarding the historical discrepancies. Though, there’s still debate if leather armor, which is prevalent in the book, was actually used much or at all for the time and place. Many leather items survive in burials, but there’s not much evidence of leather body armor found among the Vikings or Saxons.

Characters

As mentioned, Uhtred is the primary character we get to know intimately, but there are a few other main characters. One character we get to know almost as well as Uhtred is Ragnar the Fearless, as he becomes an important person for Uhtred. He’s a complex man, and his nuances show how well Cornwell can handle characters even without getting into the character’s head. Then there’s Alfred, who history knows as Alfred the Great. Cornwell puts forward that this series is centered on Alfred and how he earned his title but told through Uhtred’s perspective. The two characters cross paths several times, but due to a difference in personality and religion, Uhtred does his best to spend as little time with him as possible. We see glimpses into Alfred, but his importance is much greater than his actual presence in the story.

The one other character I wish we had gotten to know a bit better is Brida. She’s a young girl that tags along with our heroes early on and grows with Uhtred. She’s an interesting character, embittered by mistreatment, who would love for the Danes to conquer England. Yet, she’s always kept at a distance from us (and from Uhtred). But I can’t tell if this was Cornwell not giving her the same level of detail as Uhtred or Ragnar, or perhaps a sign of Uhtred not wanting to get too close to her (or her not wanting to get too close to Uhtred). We’re told a lot about her, but she has few opportunities to actively participate in a meaningful way.

Writing

Cornwell’s prose here is reflective of Uhtred and the time he lives. It’s laden with a flavor of classic heroic language and stoicism. If you’ve read an Icelandic Saga, The Last Kingdom feels like a modernization of that style. However, in part due to the pacing, there are several points where information is told to us instead of letting a scene naturally play out. Had this been a historical epic, it wouldn’t be so noticeable. There’s also one trope (which I won’t get into because of huge spoilers) that appears in the novel twice. The first time feels fresh and interesting, but it happens again later on. It’s perhaps repeated for a sense of contrast from the first time it occurs, but my problem is that the second time is far less unique; it’s the sort of thing we’ve seen before in this type of story.

That said, there’s a lot of snarling or growling or scowling. This style is not one of subtlety, and it leans into the setting and warrior culture. At times, it’s a bit much.

Conclusion

The Last Kingdom is a fun, albeit grim, start to a series. The action is mesmerizing and the world detailed. There are already several seeds for stories to come, many of which are hinted at. This is highly recommended for history fans, especially for medieval and Viking history.

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