Throwback Review: The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell (2006)

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Paperback, 368 pages
Published January 3rd 2006 by Harper Paperbacks (first published 2004)

“Destiny is all. And now, looking back, I see the pattern of my life’s journey. It began in Bebbanburg and took me south, ever southward, until I reached the farthest coast of England and could go no farther and still hear my own language. That was my childhood’s journey. As a man I have gone the other way, ever northward, carrying sword and spear and ax to clear the path back to where I began. Destiny.”

Why do more people not read Bernard Cornwell novels? This is my third from him, and I have LOVED all three so far, and intend to continue reading more. As far as historical fiction is concerned, there are very few authors that I have found to even remotely hold a candle to Cornwell.

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This is a retelling of historical events, which follow Uhtrid, a young Englishman, son of a noble landholder, who is captured by the invading Danes. He is subsequently accepted into their culture and family as a son, trained to fight, trained in their ways, and even helps the Danes fighting the British. However, he is returned to the English at the behest of their king, Alfred, who has visions for the young man his scouts identified as assimilating into the Danish culture.

Alfred is an ultra-pious Christian, as most everyone seems to be at that point. However, Uhtrid, having spent some time as a child around the extra strict Christians, finds he prefers the Danish way of life much more, namely it’s warrior culture and lack of rules. He begrudgingly agrees to help King Alfred fight the Danes, protect his lanes, and provides info and fighting prowess. He bounces around quite a bit through his youth and teen years, back and forth between the Danes and English, accepted by both, fighting for both and against both, before finally settling with the English, marrying at the command of his king, and assisting in bringing down the invading Danish forces and protecting Alfred’s quickly shrinking lands.

The story is, in a word, outstanding. Cornwell’s writing style, prose, dialogue, fight scenes and other action – all are fantastic. I loved watching Uhtred grow, change his views, become self-reflective on how he is a child being manipulated, including realizing at one point that he “follows the last person who spoke with him”, upon becoming conscious of the fact that he tends to agree and follow the Danes when they speak with him, and the English when they speak to him. It’s a refreshing change from the oblivious, head-down characters that are so often present.

Cornwell does an excellent job of portraying information without feeling “dumpy”, and his dialogue always felt realistic, un-stuffy, and smooth. Characters interacted well, reacted and grew based upon their conversations, and tended to act within character, rather than catering to the story being told (which, admittedly, is limited due to being close to historical records). The pious nature of the English is well handled – presented often and assertively, but without feeling hamfisted or awkward. It was a great presentation of Uhtred’s struggles with his countrymen’s religion versus his own beliefs, his struggle for identity, swapping between the Danes and English often as his moods, motivations, and maturity level changed.

I really, truly enjoyed everything about this book. I could make minor complaints – it is a bit jumpy at points, skips over some periods of time. The standard ‘ye olde strong female character’ is another English girl who is captured while Uhtred is with the Danes, and sticks around with Uhtrid as he goes back and forth between the English and Danish. She is, however, a bit bland, and I found she did not contribute a whole lot other than an occasional assistance in talking their way out of a sticky situation, or just kind of ‘being there’. I would have liked to see her play a bigger role than she did, and the way she exited the story was abrupt and did not serve a lot of purpose.

However, speaking of endings: this book’s was SPECTACULAR. A huge battle between Uhtrid and one of his former friends and leaders, with some snappy dialogue and a very satisfying finish. The final line of the book, without spoiling, is a tribute to the quote I made at the top of this review, and felt like a total “mic drop” situation. It was badass, and I was left going “Daaaaamn”. I loved it.

I am eager to read more of these stories.

Additionally, the audio narration done by Jonathan Keeble is some of the best I’ve EVER listened to – he gets excitable when needed, and adds an edge to important battle scenes or dramatic moments. His accent adds a feeling of authenticity to the English protagonist, but is thin enough to not distract from the story. Absolutely A+ work by him.

Rating: 5 / 5

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