Monday, December 7, 2009

Review: The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell

I really enjoyed historical novelist Bernard Cornwell's retelling of the Arthurian legends (The Winter King, Enemy of God, and Excalibur). The Last Kingdom has a similar feel. The first novel describes the early days of King Alfred (before he got the name the Great) as he defends Wessex from the onslaught of the invading Danes and other Vikings, who conquer the other kingdoms of England with surprising swiftness.

Except the story is told not from Arthur's point of view, but from that of Uthred, who is an English earl of Northumbria by birthright but raised as a Viking after being captured in battle as an adolescent. Uthred needs to choose between the adoptive family and culture that he loves and the lost heritage that he feels it is his destiny to reclaim.

Cornwell has a talent for describing wars and battles in a way that lets you understand both the larger movements of soldiers and the individual horror faced by combatants who can feel each other's breath in the press of the shield wall. Just when you think he's celebrating the violence too much via Uthred's reveling in the carnage, he'll pull back and show you the cost, or have a wiser Uthred commenting upon his luck or the fear that he felt.

The story also gives you a good feel for the events shaping the lives of people in England during the time of the Danish invasions and for what motivated them. The differences between the pagan Vikings and the devout Christian English such as Alfred are often stark, with Cornwell revealing a dislike for the hypocrisy of many churchmen through the thoughts and words of his protagonist, Uthred.

Ultimately, it's the way that Cornwell manages to make characters like Uthred and other supporting figures flawed, interesting, and likable enough to root for that makes the novel a good read. The novel is based on historical events, but not all the characters are figures from history, and those without a background in this historical period would probably be hard pressed to figure out which of the minor characters are "real" and which are made up. What this means is that you are never really comfortable as to who is going to die and who will live. That lends a real sense of anxiety and urgency to some of the conflicts. People you've come to like will die in this story, while others may surprise you by surviving.

All in all, a recommended read for fans of historical fiction, those interested in Vikings, and for anyone wanting to set a fantasy piece in this sort of feudal, Iron Age social and technological environment.

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