The joy of it. The sword joy. I was dancing with joy, joy seething in me, the battle joy that Ragnar had so often spoken of, the warrior joy. If a man has not known it, then he is no man.
The Last Kingdom (Saxon Stories #1)
By Bernard Cornwell
In the middle years of the ninth-century, the fierce Danes stormed onto British soil, hungry for spoils and conquest. Kingdom after kingdom fell to the ruthless invaders until but one realm remained. And suddenly the fate of all England—and the course of history—depended upon one man, one king.
The Last Kingdom is a reference to Wessex, the final holding in Britain to not be taken over by Danes during the 9th century. This novel, and the 9 that follow it, tells the story of Wessex and its legendary king Alfred the Great, all from the perspective of a fictional warrior named Uhtred of Bebbanburg. He is a son, a warrior, a husband, and a set of eyes for real historical events and figures. It is a period of history that I am not as well versed in, but have now been sucked into thanks to the epic narrative style employed throughout.
This novel is a ride through Uhtred’s life- his childhood as a Saxon, his adolescence as a Dane, and all of the choices and circumstances that lead him to the services and situations that befall him. Uhtred narrates it all as his warrior’s saga, presumably as an aged man in a distant future. While you know he makes it out of these hairy events alive, everyone else is fair game in a world of raids, death, and mayhem.
Cornwell blends real life events with Uhtred’s fictional saga, placing him at key points in time and allowing the readers to view the world of 9th century Britain from a number of angles. The systems of government, the role of religion both Christian and Pagan, the roles of women, the nuances of shield walls and battle- these facets and more bring together a world that is fascinating and historically real. The only downside is that there is so much information to cover, and you whip through nearly a dozen years of Uhtred’s life in less than 400 pages. With 9 more books in the series though, I suspect things will slow down and the world will be able to breathe more on its own.
Should You Read This?
Do you enjoy historical fiction? Or even just novels about unfamiliar places and ways of life? How do you feel about epic storytelling? If any of that sounds appealing, I’d give this book a go. It was an exciting introduction to Cornwell’s Saxon world, and I feel like I’ll be picking up more of the series in the future.
I’ve also failed to mention the television show which is based on this book and its sequel, The Pale Horsemen. It’s fantastically entertaining, and while it takes a few liberties (like breezing even more quickly through Uhtred’s childhood) it is pretty faithful to at least this novel. It’s available streaming online in a few places, and a new season is coming in 2017.
Summary from Goodreads