Genre: Historical Fiction
Publishing Info: 2016 by HarperCollins (originally published in 2004)
Star Rating: 4.5/5
Back Cover Summary
In a land riven by conflict, an orphan boy has come of age. Once betrayed, kidnapped and enslaved, Uhtred is now a skilled warrior who kneels to no one.
Alfred – Saxon, unlikely king, man of god – fights to hold the throne of the only land still resisting the pagan Vikings. Uhtred and Alfred’s fates are tangled, bound by destiny and blackened by the flames of war.
Together they will change history …
The opening book in the Last Kingdom series is a confident delve into the ninth century and the struggle between the Saxon and Viking forces over control of England.
The narrative is retrospectively told through the eyes of the fictional protagonist Uhtred; this device allows the readers to simultaneously hear from two of Uhtred’s selves. In general this is done very well, with little details being teased to the audience regarding future developments in the plot and inter-character relationships.
This first instalment in the series deals with Uhtred’s adolescent years and finding an unexpected family in the Vikings following a family tragedy and a forced departure from his home. The narrative in itself feels heavily influenced by other works of literature (Hamlet springs to mind), yet having the action being witnessed through the eyes of a child allows Cornwell to give the central group of characters more depth and colour. The ones who Cornwell invests into have complex personalities and morals and the novel is made even stronger because of that.
One major strength of this book is Cornwell’s ability to write in an almost cinematic nature. The scenes are rich in description but not over done, allowing the reader to be transported to that world and subsequently comparing that to the present day version. Spellings of town names quite accurate to the period are used to further this feeling of bring transported and I was constantly flicking to the helpfully inserted translation section of the book to match up Cornwell’s description with my own contemporary vision of the places mentioned.
Similarly, the battle scenes have their own character and unique identities. This cinematic nature allows the action to be fast paced but rich in description. Uhtred does admit in one of his retrospective additions that he wasn’t sure if he felt what he described and his calmness in the heat of battle is quite jarring. His clear vision in it does allow that cinematic vision to be made stronger, and Cornwell doesn’t let up on the occasionally gory description to create battle scenes that combine his strong storytelling skills with the realism that is required to make these effective and striking to readers.
Cornwell states in the Historical Note section that he consulted many secondary sources to make this novel as accurate as a fictional portrayal can be. Writing about a period of English history that isn’t as well known as others in the public eye, Alfred the Great and his fight to unite the country from the invading Danes, it is clear from reading this section of his attention to detail. This can be seen down to minute details such as Cornwell referring to them as Danes or pagans, rather than the contemporary classifying of the group as Vikings, which is more suited to a group of them raiding the country rather than settling. The majority of background players in the novel all existed, with the exception of Uhtred and a few others. Thus the fictional protagonist’s inclusion in the text creates a new fictional version of this period of history, one that is more accessible to the average reader.
The Last Kingdom is a very successful opener to this series, whetting my appetite for what is to come in Uhtred and Alfred’s stories and managing to infuse the genre of historical fiction with a cinematic quality that allows readers to fully immerse themselves in this bygone era of English history.