In 866 AD, Osbert, the second son of a Northumbrian lord, finds his destiny irrevocably altered by the arrival of the Vikings in northern England. First, his elder brother is killed while scouting the newly arrived Danish army. At the age of 10 Osbert is re-christened Uhtred, and made the new heir to the fiefdom centered on the family’s home at Bebbanburg Castle. Then, Uhtred’s father is killed in a failed attack on York, trying to drive out the Danes and avenge his eldest son. Uhtred should succeed his father, but instead he is taken captive by the Danes in the same battle that claimed his father. Uhtred’s uncle Ælfric seizes the titles and lands that should go to his nephew. Taken in by the Viking chieftain Ragnar the Fearless, Uhtred becomes enamored of the Danes, their way of life and their strength. He grows to be a young man, a warrior of some skill, under Ragnar’s tutelage. Until, finally, Ragnar is betrayed and his family and retainers killed or scattered. Once again Uhtred is without a home. He heads south to seek his fortune, and escape his past. In the years that Uhtred grew from a boy into a man, the English kingdoms south of Northumbria have fallen one after another to the Danes. Only Wessex in the far south, led by King Alfred the Great, still stands. The Danes dream of crushing this last outpost; King Alfred, however, dreams of an England not merely free of Viking rule, but strong and united. And in Uhtred, a warrior trained to think and fight like the seemingly unstoppable enemy, he finds the man he believes may be able to turn the tide.
The Last Kingdom is Bernard Cornwell’s first book in the Saxon Tales, a series that now encompasses five books. Cornwell, probably best known for his Richard Sharpe series (set during the Napoleonic Wars), does take liberties with the historical record. Having a fictional character ostensibly alter the course of a country’s fate, that partly goes without saying. Beyond that, though, the sequence of events and battles has been altered to fit the story. Cornwell is open about this, chronicling the changes he has made to history in the epilogue, but purists should be forewarned. That said, The Last Kingdom is an engrossing and fast paced tale that sucks the reader in. In addition, the author gets the details of Uhtred’s world right, helping the reader buy into the story even if you realize that the story is wandering ever farther from historical fact. Fans of Steven Pressfield’s historical novels should enjoy this series, though Cornwell strays a bit farther from the record than Pressfield. Though the action here is on land, readers of fiction centered on naval history by the likes of Julian Stockwin, Patrick O’Brien and others would probably find much to enjoy here as well. Finally, followers of contemporary adventure writers such as Clive Cussler and Tom Clancy, which routinely feature similar, modern-day, men of action might want to take a look.
Pros: An engrossing and epic story, strong Medieval setting.
Cons: Bends the historical timeline and plays with fact when it suits the story, secondary characters are sometimes thin.
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