Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Review: The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell

This isn’t strictly speaking a spoiler review since I don’t actually say what happens in detail, but I do say what doesn’t happen which is potentially spoiler-y. With that in mind, if you haven’t read The Last Kingdom yet and would like your experience to be completely influence free then maybe save this review for later. It’s always better to safe rather than sorry, folks.

2004 • 355 pages (eBook) • Harper Collins

Ninth century England. Danish warriors ruthlessly storm the English coast, killing and plundering everything in their wake, invading each Kingdom in England and taking it for themselves. All except one: Wessex still stands and it is the fate of this Kingdom that will determine the course of history. Caught in the midst of the invasion is Uhtred, son of an Anglo-Saxon Lord who is captured by the Danes. Living freely as an Englishman among his adoptive Danish family, Uhtred’s loyalties are constantly tested as England is plunged in to war.

I finished The Last Kingdom in the early hours a little over a day ago and since then I’ve been trying to weigh up how I feel about it. This is historical fiction at its grittiest: there’s action and blood and Cornwell doesn’t go sparingly on the detail. All of this is of course very good, it’s exactly what I want from a historical novel to help me escape. At 355 pages it’s not exactly a beast of a book, but a hell of a lot happens and it’s amazing how Cornwell fits so much in to the story without stretching out the page count considerably. The pacing and the timing are handled really well and you can see Uhtred’s character grow and develop as the plot goes along.

The narrative is told in first person from Uhtred’s perspective and I thought Uhtred was actually a well-rounded protagonist. He felt real and flawed; he wasn’t glossed over or crafted in to the perfect hero. Instead he helped accentuate the complexities of human nature in the decisions he must make. In that sense, the book is awesome. Some of the other characters felt a little flat – Mildrith comes in much later in the story and although you understand Uhtred’s feelings toward her, she herself felt underdeveloped. I liked her because Uhtred liked her, and she never really came in to a character of her own. Maybe in the next book we’ll see a bit more of her. Brida was fun, but her part also felt a bit show-and-tell. Alfred however, was great. I really felt the complexity of his character and it will be interesting to see how his story for greatness unfolds throughout the rest of the series.

The bone I have to pick with this book lies not with the premise of the story, but with the way it’s executed. Uhtred’s narration is told retrospectively, in that it is an older, wiser Uhtred who is telling the reader his story. Cornwell’s decision to tell the story in this method simply lets us know that he knows exactly what’s going to happen to his main character before it actually occurs. Which is fine, it’s good for an author to know where his story his going, but this meant that I was constantly aware that no matter what bloodshed, no matter how close Uhtred comes to death, I ultimately knew that he would live to tell the tale.

You may be thinking, but hey it’s a given that the main protagonist will live, especially if it’s written in the first person. Yes, this is usually true and there are plenty of other books out there where the protagonist survives, but this only served to remind me that Uhtred will manage to endure whatever Cornwell throws at him and that kind of watered down the tension for me. There were times when Uhtred would meet somebody for the first time, and go on to say something like, “and I still liked them many years later” or “that was the first time I met such-a-body, and I didn’t know what it meant then”. Occasionally this made me think “Great! This person is going to be important later on, I wonder what happens…” but mostly it just once again reminded me that someone was going to survive –at least for a bit longer – and come out of whatever shit-fest was about to go down.

I just wanted to get lost in the story a little more, for the narrative to give me a chance to kind of forget that Uhtred will survive – it would have made the dangers he faced a little more dangerous. The story itself is great, there’s a lot of historical detail which is awesome and lots of battles and action which is equally great so points to Cornwell for that. It didn’t ‘wow’ me as much as I had hoped though.

Overall rating: 3 stars


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