What can I say? I'm kind of a sucker for all things Vikings. When I learned (last week) that BBC America started airing The Last Kingdom, a TV series based on Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Tales book series, I had three immediate reactions
• Yikes! I'm already a few episodes behind.After two episodes of the TV show, I'm officially on board with Cornwell's interpretation of the Viking invasion and occupation of England in the 800s. I may talk about the TV show in another post, but today I want to talk about Bernard Cornwell's book The Last Kingdom, which I listened to in record time.
• Yikes! I need to read the books.
• Phew, something to get me through the wait for Vikings season 4.
• What's the basic premise? The Last Kingdom is told from the perspective of Uhtred, the rightful ealderman of Bebbanbury in northern England, who tells his story in retrospect. When Uhtred was about nine years old, he was both orphaned by and taken prisoner by the Danes (aka Vikings), when they attacked his home. Admiring his warrior heart, the Danes treat him well, and the boy is eventually unofficially adopted by Ragnar, who raises him as a son. Meanwhile, Uhtred has not forgotten that his uncle stole his birthright, moving into Bebbanbury and calling himself ealderman.
• OK, tell me a little more. This is epic historical fiction as only Cornwell can write it. The story is infused with fascinating cultural, technological, and political details. Young Uhtred feels an immediate kinship with the Danes and their gods, but when he's forced to serve the Wessaxian king Alfred, he is smart enough to pretend to fit in, though he doesn't pray to the Christian god. Uhtred's eye is always on winning back his birth lands, and he takes advantage of whatever wealth, power, and experience he can accumulate.
• Details. Cornwell is truly a master at describing battles, and the shield wars of the 800s were fearsome, gruesome affairs. These scenes are intense: We feel the fear, the confusion, and the bloodlust. The Last Kingdom, however is not all bloodshed. There are many scenes of everyday life as well as some romance. Hey, those Vikings were not restricted by Christian guilt.
• Other themes and plot lines. Woven into the general story of the Vikings vs. the English are several layers of revenge. It was not a good idea to make enemies, as there was always a price to pay. Cornwell also writes about the different religions of the time, primarily contrasting Christianity with the Viking pantheon. There was little respect for differing spiritual beliefs from either side. Finally, there are other political issues besides the Viking invasion. In the early 800s, England was not united, and several kings and ealdermen vied for power.
• Characters. Uhtred and the other principal characters are complex and well defined. Although they generally stay true to their personalities, individuals are allowed to grow and change. There are few "types" in The Last Kingdom, and it isn't always easy to determine friend from foe. When circumstances change, even long friendships may not be enough to guarantee peace. My advice to Uhtred? Trust no one but yourself.
• Final thoughts and recommendation. Although The Last Kingdom is the first in a long series (book 9 came out this year), it doesn't end on a cliff-hanger and reads as a story unto itself. On the other hand, once you finish this first installment, you'll want to know what happens: Does Uhtred ever get his lands back? Which side, Dane or English, does he ultimately take? Bernard Cornwell's The Last Kingdom is excellent historical fiction. It has a great story, is based on history, includes awesome period details, has plenty of action, and has sympathetic characters. Plus it features Vikings! I cannot wait to read book 2.
• The audiobook. I listened to the unabridged audiobook edition (Harper Audio; 13 h, 28 min), read by Jonathan Keeble. Keeble's performance held me in its grip from the first minute to the last. He really knows how to up the tension in an action scene. His expressive narration and consistent characterizations make this a recommended listen. My understanding is that the print book contains an author's note that explains what parts of the story are true and what parts were embellished or fictionalized for the sake of the story. That note was not included in the audiobook I downloaded from Audible.
Published by HarperCollins, 2006 (paperback)
Source: Bought (see review policy)
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