Monday, August 12, 2013

Book Review - The Last Kingdom

The Last Kingdom – Bernard Cornwell

This series began in 2004 when I just becoming a fan of Bernard Cornwell. Despite the high praise it has received I have resolutely refused to start it until I completed the other series I had started by him (Sharpe aside of course – there are dozens of them).

The blurb:

The Last Kingdom is set in the England of the ninth and tenth centuries. These were the years when the Danish Vikings had invaded and occupied three of England's four kingdoms, and when King Alfred, his son and grandson fought back and won the freedom of the country again. The story is seen through the eyes of Uhtred, a dispossessed English nobleman. Captured as a child and raised by the Danes, he now finds his allegiances divided. But the one thing he knows is that he wants to recover his father's land, the fort by the wild northern sea that we now know as Bamburgh.

I found: the Warlord Chronicles virtually flawless, the Sharpe novels great fun if a little formulaic and the Grail Quest series very good although did have its problems in the way that Cornwell focused a little too hard on historical accuracy and the battle descriptions at the expense of his story and characters. I was looking forward to see how this series compares to the others.

After an engrossing opening where we meet Uthred and his world is turned upside down, Cornwell focuses on setting the scene. In fact, as the “Last Kingdom” began I was worried that it too would suffer from the same issue as the “Grail Quest” series.

Cornwell works hard to firmly entrench us into the time period of invading Danes and Christianity. The result of which is a very episodic feel to the opening of the novel as Uthred travels from town to town involved on the periphery of small skirmishes.  Whilst this is happening, the reader is force fed the Danish terms for various items etc in an effort to set the background and claim authenticity.

This is all very interesting but it does feel a little “too in your face”. Thankfully, this does not last long. As Uthred grows, he learns about the world and the Danes’ way of life. The information is filtered far more organically as the characters and story shine through.

Uthred himself is an interesting character. He gravitates towards strong ruthless men, who lead a simple life and don’t have to over think things. Uthred himself has a simple outlook on life. It is one that makes him arrogant and unfriendly to those that do not share his principles. I’ve read some reviews that state they did not warm to his character and it spoilt their enjoyment of the book. I have to say I did not share this opinion. I found these uncompromising qualities and flawed outlook made for a compelling character.

Uthred is heavily influenced by the last bit of advice he receives whoever imparts it at the time, something I can identify with certainly. It means his opinion changes a lot. At the same time he is hard working and has a strong sense of moral purpose – what is not to like?
The secondary characters here are all strong as well. Ragnar the man that captures Uthred and then treats him like a son is a great fatherly figure whilst Alfred (the most famous man in this series) is a boy that Bernard Cornwell makes it hard for you to like, but at the same time had several redeeming qualities also.

The plot is cleverly constructed, covering all of the historical battles with an authenticity that only Cornwell can achieve. His descriptions of the shield wall and how vital they were at the time period in question is fascinating. Unlike the start of the novel, Cornwell soon establishes the correct balance between story-telling and recalling historical terms and place names.

All the crucial elements to a good story are included from the protagonist’s journey to a potentially great antagonist. The ending is engrossing with a firm resolution in regards to Uthred’s journey to being a man.

Overall, I think the “Last Kingdom” is a very good platform to a new series. It introduces a new era to us and launches several great characters. I can’t wait to see where it goes next.

My rating: 8.6