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The Last Kingdom, Book Cover

A Novel by Bernard Cornwell

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Danish Vikings on a Landgrab in England

  • Oct 6, 2005
This one is a nicely done rendition of the period when the Danes were overrunning England and Alfred, king of the holdout English kingdom of Wessex (land of the West Saxons), stood nearly alone against them. After the other kingdoms, including Northumbria, Mercia, and East Anglia had fallen, there was only Alfred's Wessex and Alfred, a somewhat prissy churchman, seemed the least likely of English kings to hold them off. But he proved a surprise to his contemporaries and, of course, to the Danes.

This tale tracks an English lord, an ealdorman, who is snatched from home and hearth at the tender age of ten in the course of a Danish raid on his father's coastal holdings and subsequently reared as a Dane. Coming of age in the warlike culture of the vikings, young Uthred Uthredsson must balance competing loyalties to his adopted Danish father and his English heritage. This first volume in a projected series carries Uthred to King Alfred and his first big decision, and then back again into the jaws of destiny.

There is not much of a story here . . . just lots of fighting and running (or sailing) about. But it's all well told and keeps the reader with Uhtred all the way. The book suffers from a certain thinness in characterization though. None of the players are particularly memorable, not even Uhtred, our protagonist. And Bernard Cornwell spends an awful lot of time giving us details of time and place, showing off his extensive research. But he makes it all work.

I liked this one much better than I liked the first in his Warlord series, The Winter King (I never read the other two in that series because the first just failed to move me). That earlier one was about the Romano-Celt, Arthur, in his legendary fight to hold back the Saxon tide and defend the Celtic land of Britain. But, of course, as we all know Arthur lost despite his brief moment of glory when he defeated the Saxons in a series of big battles. This one, on the other hand, is about the descendants of those temporarily defeated Saxons, now firmly established in the land they conquered after Arthur, as they struggle to defend themselves against new invaders from their old homeland, their cousins the Danes.

Of course, the Danes were among the earliest vikings so this one is basically a viking tale and there's a great deal more historical information to work with in telling it, including the record left behind by the English clerics of the period, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which reports the earliest invasions of Saxon leaders like Hengest and Horsa and takes us right up to later viking times.

But if you really like viking tales, as I do, there are lots of others out there, some better than this one. Among my favorites are The Golden Warrior: The Story of Harold and William by Hope Muntz, about the struggles of Harold, the last English king, against William of Normandy for the English throne, and the recently published Saga: A Novel of Medieval Iceland by Jeff Janoda. This one brilliantly retells a fascinating tale found in the Eyrbyggja Saga, one of the most famous of the sagas of old Iceland. Both are powerful novels in the old Norse saga tradition and either one has Cornwell's new entry beat. But The Last Kingdom is a decent read, too, and better than some of Cornwell's other efforts.

author of The King of Vinland's Saga

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More The Last Kingdom reviews
review by . June 13, 2010
Excellent First Book in a Terrific Series by Bernard Cornwell
Bernard Cornwell's, The Last Kingdom, is the first book in the Saxon Tales series. It is a compelling, and emotionally satisfying story of a noble Saxon boy, Uhtred, snatched by the fearsome Danes who routinely raided England in the 9th century. Despite his violent capture, Uhtred comes to love and respect Earl Ragnar, the Danish warrior chieftain who raises Uhtred as his own son. This leads to the continuing conflict Uhtred faces as he weighs his loyalty to the Saxons of his birth and the …
review by . June 05, 2005
Just a few moments ago, I was writing a review of one of Cornwell's American Civil War novels. Now I am writing a review of this Cornwell novel about 9th Century England. That's how good a historical novelist Cornwell is: the era doesn't matter. Cornwell weaves fact and fiction together seamlessly, believably and in a way sure to engage the reader's interest.     The year is 866 A.D. The island is not yet united and the Danes raid and conquer at will. Cornwell's device is Uhtred, …
About the reviewer
Stuart W. Mirsky ()
Ranked #230
I'm a retired bureaucrat (having served, most recently, as an Assistant Commissioner in amunicipal agency in a major Northeastern American city). In 2002 I took an early retirement to pursue a lifelong … more
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Bestseller Cornwell leaps back a millennium from his Richard Sharpe series to tell of the consolidation of England in the late ninth century and the role played by a young (fictional) warrior-in-training who's at the center of the war between Christian Englishmen and the pagan Danes. (Most of the other principal characters—Ubba, Guthrum, Ivar the Boneless and the like—are real historical figures.) Young Uhtred, who's English, falls under the control of Viking über-warrior Ragnar the Fearless when the Dane wipes out Uhtred's Northumberland family. Cornwell liberally feeds readers history and nuggets of battle data and customs, with Uhtred's first-person wonderment spinning all into a colorful journey of (self-)discovery. In a series of episodes, Ragnar conquers three of England's four kingdoms. The juiciest segment has King Edmund of East Anglia rebuking the Viking pagans and demanding that they convert to Christianity if they intend to remain in England. After Edmund cites the example of St. Sebastian, the Danes oblige him by turning him into a latter-day Sebastian and sending him off to heaven. Uhtred's affection for Ragnar as a surrogate father grows, and he surpasses the conqueror's blood sons in valor. When father and adopted son arrive at the fourth and last kingdom, however, the Danes meet unexpected resistance and Uhtred faces personal and familial challenges, as well as a crisis of national allegiance. This is a solid ...
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Author: Bernard Cornwell
Publisher: HarperCollins e-books (January 25, 2005)
Format: Kindle Edition

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