The Last Kingdom
Harper, 333 p., $14.99
I loved this book. It had it all. Shield walls, battles, invasions, treachery, betrayal, individual combat, naval battles, storms at sea. This is the first of the Saxon Novels, and the first book by Cornwell I’ve read. It won’t be the last.
The story revolves around a boy named Uhtred, who is the son of an earl on the northern coast of England in the ninth century. Shortly after his tenth birthday, the Danes decided to settle in England. All of England. And they are not invited, nor are they welcome. After his older brother is killed on a scouting mission, Uhtred becomes the heir, and his father begins to take an interest in him, which means taking him along on military campaigns as part of his education in his noble responsibilities. After his father is killed in a battle, Uhtred is captured by one of the Danish chieftains, Ragnar. Ragnar adopts Uhtred as a son. Meanwhile his uncle, who was left watching the castle, has decided to become the earl and tries to have Uhtred killed.
Over half the book is devoted to Uhtred’s growing up, and in comparison to the latter part of the book, when Uhtred is a grown warrior, this part is slow. That’s not to say it isn’t interesting, but a lot of what’s happening here is character development and setting up a blood feud that will carry over into the next book and maybe the ones following. As one character says, and I’m paraphrasing here, feuds go on forever. It’s definitely worth investing time in. We get an education along with Uhtred in both English ways and Danish culture. This makes the book richer and more complex.
There were times when I was reminded of Robert Low’s The Whale Road, although the books are quite different in focus and tone. Both concern a boy growing to manhood in a warrior culture that is at odds with Christianity, who by the end of the book is a respected leader. But that’s about where the similarities end. The Whale Road read more like a fantasy quest novel than, well, much of the fantasy I’ve read. The gods, dragons, Valkyries and such were all real to the characters in both books, and Low does a masterful job of making that worldview seem real to the reader. Cornwell on the other hand, while not ignoring the religious differences between the cultures and even stressing them at times, fails to make the gods as real as they are in The Whale Road. Instead, reading The Last Kingdom made me feel like I was reading history by a witness, which was the intent.
Not only did I feel like I was reading history, I wanted to go and read history before I was done. In my mind, this is one of the characteristics of a successful historical novel. This is a time period I don’t know much about. There were no films for my high school history
football coach teacher to show, so we didn’t really cover it.
The last kingdom of the title is the kingdom of Alfred the Great, who is the sole English king left long before he appears on stage. Well, the sole English king who isn’t a lackey for the Danes at any rate. Uhtred ends up in his service after having to leave Danish lands under really bad circumstances. And I mean really, really bad circumstances. As in an escalation of that blood feud I mentioned. The latter part of the book concerns Uhtred becoming a trusted leader in Alfred’s army. You can probably guess that the Danes are still hanging around causing trouble at the end of the book. Cornwell is taking his time and not rushing through the events that helped shape English history.
I may not know as much as I’d like about this time period, but I’m going to address that before I read the next book. Which will be soon.