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Thursday, 13 December 2018

Book Review: The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell

I've read several Cornwell books over the years, but the historical fiction genre is something that I only dip into from time to time - in fact, I think the last book I read by this author was Stonehenge which I remember really enjoying and so looking for a change of pace I picked up The Last Kingdom from my TBR pile.

I knew nothing of the BBC TV series when I picked up the book (though I this last few weeks binged watched all three seasons) and I'm kind of glad since the story came to me fresh - or at least as fresh as a story so heavily based on actual historic events can be. After all, we learned all about Alfred the Great and the Saxons at school, so I had a basic knowledge of the period and the established facts. However after reading the book you have the sense of having been there, for whilst you travel between the covers you are indeed transported to Wessex, Mercia and beyond.

And that, I think, is  Cornwell's biggest talent - he holds an  immense skill in creating readable stories, and pushing his  research and knowledge into the background so that the action drags the reader into this world. Before  you know it you are completely enthralled in the world of the books and it's as if you are there in Wessex, experiencing the day to day life of the characters. So faithfully does the author transport you to a time and place that the reader might as well have been issued with a passport - that 9th Century England stamp will sure stand out between the stamps for two weeks in Ibiza, during which I dined that fat bird while the warm sea breeze blew through our hair three years ago,  and next year's trip to the States when I, no doubt will entertain an equally voluptuous bird or two. Hey, I'm nothing if not an optimist.

'I am Ulthred son of Ulthred.'

The book starts in the year 866 with Ulthred, then still called Osbert. He is, at this point nine-years-old and it is his older brother who took his father's name. During the day the elder brother is killed by Danes and so Osbert becomes Ulthred. The story then moves forward until almost a year later when Ulthred is almost ten years old and find himself going to war for for the first time.

'That was the year 867, and it was the first time I went to war. And I have never ceased,'

Young Ulthred expects to fight in the shield wall but he is told by his father that he will not, he is told that he will watch and he will learn, and throughout the book the shield wall becomes something of a metaphor for the journey to manhood. For although Ulthred faces and overcomes considerable dangers throughout the story it is not until he finally fights in a shield wall in the closing sections of the book that he truly considers himself a warrior. But it is during his first experience of war that his father and their fyrd are completely wiped out, and he is taken away by the Danes.

Ulthred is at first treated like just another slave but soon he gains a new father in the Dane, Ragnar who treats his well and as the years pass, the young grows towards adulthood and begins to consider himself more Dane than Saxon. However Ulthred will soon follow his destiny and end up serving King Alfred in his many battles against the Danes as the visionary Saxon King sets about the long task of achieving a unified England.

The author uses many of the events depicted in the Anglo Saxon Chronicles to give his series a sense of reality, buy he is constantly aware of the need to tell a good yarn, to keep the reader turning the pages and he does this so well - as a writer myself, I'm envious of the author's talent in delivering a house-brick of a book that doesn't outstay its welcome, and indeed leaves the reader eager for more.

Apparently this series of books has only recently been re-named the Last Kingdom series because of the success of the TV series - they were originally published under the collective: The Warrior series, and as soon as I closed the covers on The Last Kingdom, I immediately turned the first page of the second book in the series, The Pale Horseman so expect a review soon.

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