The Last Kingdom (2004)

By Bernard Cornwell

“The preachers tell us that pride is a great sin, but the preachers are wrong. Pride makes a man, it drives him, it is the shield wall around his reputation… Men die, they said, but reputation does not die…Show me a humble warrior and I will see a corpse.”

Uhtred, son of ealdorman Uhtred of Northumbria, witnesses the attack of the Danes on his lands. He is captured by the Danish lord, Ragnar, but is raised as a son by him and not a slave. Ragnar trains Uhtred to be a warrior and treats him as a lord. Throughout the story we follow Uhtred as he recalls his adventures with the Danes who are on a campaign to sack the kingdoms of England and take over.

“And at the foot of Yggdrasil, the tree of life, the three spinners mocked us.”

Eventually, Uhtred is forced to return to the English in a cruel twist of fate and the story ends with King Alfred’s plans to protect the last kingdom of England, Wessex, from the Danes.

“The poets, when they speak of war, talk of the shield wall, they talk of the spears and arrows flying, of the blade beating on the shield, of the heroes who fall and the spoils of the victors, but I was to discover that war was really about food. About feeding men and horses. About finding food. The army that eats wins.”

How on earth have I not read Bernard Cornwell before? This is probably one of the best historical fiction novels I have ever read. It is what I was always looking for in HF, captivating storytelling, realistic events and battles, fully fleshed out characters, it was perfect. I can’t remember the last time I read a HF novel and was enthralled by the narrative in such a way and not rolling my eyes at the endless cliches, the meaningless cliffhangers, or the lame descriptions of battles. This had none of that bull and was able to keep me excited without any of that.

Unlike what I’ve read before, the battles and journeys weren’t boring because they was inundated with over exaggerated  details that read like a Zack Snyder movie or mundane details that don’t add to the events but confuse you. They vibrant and vivid, partially because it is told solely from Uhtred’s perspective. Reading it you almost feel as if you’re in the battle or on the journey, watching it from his own eyes because it’s not just the gleam of the sun dancing on swords and spears but also the cries of men, the fear in their eyes, the sweat and dry air, the anticipation, it is a delicate balance between the grandeur of battles and the mundane humanly experience and I found that beautiful even if my description doesn’t do it any justice because you have to read it to really appreciate the feeling.

 

Speaking of emotions, Cornwell is a master at eliciting them. He weaves the story in a way that forces you to sympathize with certain characters and dislike others, he presents the complicated nature of human relationship and morality and human connections; how convoluted and twisted humans are but are still beautiful.

Character development was phenomenal and the characters themselves were just great. In most of the HF that I’ve read, the women are usually mere sex objects, that’s the only role they play in the story. You would have long blazon like scenes but are more disgusting and lack the elegance and innocence of a blazon. And you would have long sex scenes that are a form of male wish/desire fulfillment. The women are there to satisfy the male gaze and that has always been an issue for me with HF. But that wasn’t the case in The Last Kingdom; the main female character, Brida, though she didn’t have that big of a role and the book barely passes the Bechdel test, was a badass. She wouldn’t take any of the misogynistic BS spewed by King Alfred and the others and was always doing whatever the hell she wanted. Witty and stubborn as hell, she was definitely one of my favorite characters.

Another thing I also loved about the novel was Cornwell’s writing style: plain eloquence. It’s not ornate in any way but that’s the beauty of it. It’s simple and plain and incredibly beautiful. And I think part of the beauty comes from the retrospective pov, the story is told in hindsight as Uhtred is reflecting on his childhood and it genuinely feels like you’re sitting on the carpet listening to an old man recall his tales and getting lost and completely transported. It’s like meta enchantment if that makes any sense.

Now I know I went on raving about how great the novel is for the past 500 words, but I have to say it’s not a book for a historical fiction newbie. If you haven’t read HF before, you might find it too boring and slow paced and might want to start with something…more exciting maybe? I mean I find it exciting enough for me but I know my definition of exciting isn’t the same as everyone’s. You might want to start with Robyn Young’s Brethren trilogy which I also enjoyed, it a bit more fast paced. But nonetheless, it’s a novel worth reading.

Overall score: 4.5/5

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