The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell

Vertigo

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This was my first Barnard Cornwell book and I simply loved it; I can really find little to fault in it. I’m no expert on history but this had the feel of an extremely well researched book and in an afterword Cornwell discusses some of the historical decisions he took where there is doubt or dispute over the history and even confesses to one place where he has deliberately altered the chronology (by a whole year!) for dramatic reasons. It deals with the initial stages of the creation of the first true kingdom of England and Alfred’s desperate fight against the encroachment of the Danes.


The development of the child Uhtred into the adult warrior Uhtred is unsentimentally followed; this is no syrupy coming of age story, in Uhtred’s world you must grow up fast and learn to fight even faster. Whilst there are a good number of central character, there are not so many they are hard to follow and all are well developed; a fair accomplishment for a book written in the first person.


Cornwell successfully walks a very fine line in his battle scenes; intense and unflinching but never gratuitously gory. I’m quite certain no words can ever capture the true horror of early medieval fighting, with sword and axe and spear and shield wall, but Cornwell gets close without resorting to swamping the reader with spurting blood and limbs flying off in every direction. In fact he stresses the reality of such fighting where decapitation is considerably harder than Hollywood would have us believe and just how hard it can be to kill a man with a sword.


I was captured from the first sentence and was never really released; for the first time in a long while, having finished one book in a series, I was left wondering not whether to continue the series but rather how soon can I buy the next volume. It certainly won’t be long before I do!
 

Dave

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I think I've posted elsewhere that I was given the tenth book in the series, The Empty Throne, as a present. That was my first Cornwell book and I also quite enjoyed it, though it was odd because the son of Uhtred, son of Uhtred, also Uhtred, takes over the storytelling halfway through the book. I didn't realise that it was a series then. I haven't read this first book, but I did start watching the TV series on catch-up, and they are doing 2 books per Season, and they are now up to Book 4. So, I just read Book 5, The Burning Land, and it was of the same high standard. I was told that the series (currently up to Book 12) becomes a little formulaic, so I wasn't sure it would be. I can see a little of that formula that in the stories, but wondered if anyone else felt that way and if it impacted negatively?

Meanwhile I picked up Heretic, second-hand, thinking it was a stand alone book, but no, that is also third in a series too, The Grail series. I have to say, maybe Cornwell is formulaic, but I think must be quite a difficult thing to write a book within a series, that can be picked up out of order and still be a good read. He seems to have a knack at that, probably from cutting his teeth on Sharp. I haven't read any Sharp but there looks to be over 20 books written in a complete jumble of an order.
 

Vertigo

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I have now read the first 6 books in Saxon Stories aka The Last Kingdom series and, yes, I think it's fair to say that it is a little formulaic. I'm not sure how an author gets around that; same setting, same major characters, same challenges (defeating the Danish 'invaders'). And, in fact, I'd say any series is likely to have similar issues. Some I can think of offhand: Honor Harrington, Miles Vorkosigan, Tales of the Ketty Jay, the Belgariadm, Dr Who. In fact it's hard to imagine a series that won't suffer this fate to some extent. Maybe not series where each book is in the same universe but stand alone like Banks's culture series, but even that became a little formulaic once the parameters of the Culture civilisation were firmly established.

As for the second part of the question, I haven't had a problem with it yet. Possibly I was just beginning to get a little tired of Uhtred's unwillingly tied relationship with Alfred but, now Alfred has died, that aspect at least may change (although it may be that it's just moved to a more fur-lined but essentially similar relationship with Alfred's daughter).
 

Dave

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What? Alfred dies???? :)

He actually hangs around quite a long time given his poor health. The word was spread around that he had died at least once already.

I don't think it is a spoiler that Alfred eventually dies, or that Uhtred eventually dies. Death is the one certainty in life. However, I want to ask something concerning your final line that will be considered a spoiler, so I will protect it:

Uhtred seems to have no end of women he is involved with. His childhood friend, Breda first, followed by an almost James Bond succession. He obviously loved his wife, Gisela, until her death. The growing involvement in The Burning Land with Alfred's daughter seems like it may be going somewhere, but that must be unlikely, with her already married to his cousin? The most unlikely part of that book is him lying with Skade. Surely, you wouldn't touch her with a bargepole.
 

Vertigo

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What? Alfred dies???? :)

He actually hangs around quite a long time given his poor health. The word was spread around that he had died at least once already.

I don't think it is a spoiler that Alfred eventually dies, or that Uhtred eventually dies. Death is the one certainty in life. However, I want to ask something concerning your final line that will be considered a spoiler, so I will protect it:

Uhtred seems to have no end of women he is involved with. His childhood friend, Breda first, followed by an almost James Bond succession. He obviously loved his wife, Gisela, until her death. The growing involvement in The Burning Land with Alfred's daughter seems like it may be going somewhere, but that must be unlikely, with her already married to his cousin? The most unlikely part of that book is him lying with Skade. Surely, you wouldn't touch her with a bargepole.
Should have put a spoiler in! Mind you the book title does sort of give it away; Death of Kings!

Regarding the romantic involvement. I agree he can't do too much with Aethelflaed as she is a documented historical character. And I also agree with the long train of women. I suspect Cornwell feels the need to have a romantic thread running through each story (as opposed to an established relationship), though I'm not sure I, as the reader, feel the same need! But that's just me! I admit I do start into each book wondering who it will be this time!
 

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