Destiny is everything

A review of The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell

A hard-scrabble life, never knowing if the home you have worked for will be ruthlessly wrenched away from you tomorrow. The threat of raiders always present, blood-thirsty men calling on their god to avenge some wrong or deliver land and wealth. Shifting alliances with friends quickly turning to enemies, and blood relatives betraying each other without a thought. Such is the world of Uhtred, son of Uhtred, earl of Northumbria in the chaotic waning decades of ninth century Britain. Danes are intent on capturing all four kingdoms of the isle, and when young Uhtred is captured when his ancestral home falls to the raiding Vikings, he is thrust into a fight for the very survival of not only his existence, but that of England itself. 

Thus begins Bernard Cornwell’s first Saxon Tale, The Last Kingdom. Recounting the unfamiliar but enthralling account of the Danish wars and eventual unification of England under Alfred the Great, Cornwell writes a romping epic with actual historical figures imagined afresh (and it doesn’t hurt that Cornwell has traced his own family history back to the original Uhtred of Bamburgh Castle). Telling the story through Uhtred’s wry and unsparing perspective is masterful. Treated like a son by his Danish captors, Uhtred can think of nothing but recapturing his lost inheritance from a deceitful uncle and establishing himself as a great warrior. The Danes teach him the art of war, which Uhtred proves to be disconcertingly good at. He gets plenty of practice—Cornwell spares little of the supremely barbaric violence that marked the era, and Uhtred longs for nothing more than to do battle in the great shield walls where armies would clash and die. But betrayal is not limited to the English, and Uhtred again is a man caught between two causes. Does he fight for Alfred, a fellow Englishman but whose Christian ways are not only weak in Uhtred’s opinion, but also leads the king to loathe him? Or does he side with his former protectors, who promise a chance to recover his beloved home but means doing homage to the man whom Uhtred has vowed a blood feud. Cornwell’s choice to write Uhtred in such a quandary has its narrative benefits (both sides of the story are conveniently portrayed), but it also tests Uhtred’s journey from blunt instrument of death, a man who only finds true exultation when he is up to his ankles in battle blood, to a skilled adversary who deftly maneuvers between Dane and Saxon, Christian and pagan. It will be a long journey (Cornwell’s Saxon tales are up to eight books in the series with more on the way). But it’s evident in his writing that Cornwell relishes writing the brash and ever resourceful Uhtred, and it’s hard to deny the sweeping adventure he embarks on. For the un-squeamish who want their fiction with a hearty dose of bravado and swagger, The Last Kingdom and its sequels makes for worthy summer reading.

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