From Goodreads: This is the exciting—yet little known—story of the making of England in the 9th and 10th centuries, the years in which King Alfred the Great, his son and grandson defeated the Danish Vikings who had invaded and occupied three of England’s four kingdoms.
The story is seen through the eyes of Uhtred, a dispossessed nobleman, who is captured as a child by the Danes and then raised by them so that, by the time the Northmen begin their assault on Wessex (Alfred’s kingdom and the last territory in English hands) Uhtred almost thinks of himself as a Dane. He certainly has no love for Alfred, whom he considers a pious weakling and no match for Viking savagery, yet when Alfred unexpectedly defeats the Danes and the Danes themselves turn on Uhtred, he is finally forced to choose sides. By now he is a young man, in love, trained to fight and ready to take his place in the dreaded shield wall. Above all, though, he wishes to recover his father’s land, the enchanting fort of Bebbanburg by the wild northern sea.
This thrilling adventure—based on existing records of Bernard Cornwell’s ancestors—depicts a time when law and order were ripped violently apart by a pagan assault on Christian England, an assault that came very close to destroying England.
The first book I read by Bernard Cornwell was The Winter King, which is the first of his King Arthur trilogy. I think I made it through the first forty or so pages and didn’t like it, so I returned it to the library and didn’t give Cornwell another chance. That is, until I discovered The British History podcast, which got me interested in the Viking era and the time of Alfred the Great. Having at least a basic understanding of the history helped me enjoy the BBC television show, The Last Kingdom, much more the second time around, and so I decided to give Cornwell’s books another chance. The TV show is based on his Saxon Chronicles with the first season given over to the first two books, The Last Kingdom and The Pale Horseman.
I enjoyed this book far more than I thought I would. As the book is narrated by an aged Uhtred, many years after the events described in the books, Uhtred is far more self-aware and able to acknowledge his bouts of dim-wittedness than the Uhtred of the TV series. This, I think, is an advantage that books have over screens- if you have a television character constantly rambling on about his life as he’s looking back on it, it quickly gets irritating.
With the book being a book, its able to include far more detail and isn’t confined to an episodic format. And because a book can go deeper into a character’s background without the audience losing interest, we get to see far more of Uthred’s childhood. It’s a treat to read and explains why Uhtred is so loyal to the Dane, above and beyond his own kin.
The historical detail in this book is amazing. From historical events to everyday (and not so everyday) objects, Cornwell has clearly done his research. He admits to having adjusted the date of one battle by about a year so it would fit in with Uhtred’s storyline better, but because he tells you this in the afterward, the fact that he’s made the adjustment doesn’t bother me. I wouldn’t have noticed either way, but it’s good to see a writer of historical fiction admit when he hasn’t gone along with the known history. The rest of the details help breathe life into the story, from the differences between the Danish pagans and the Christian Saxons’ views on life and death to the weapons and coinage (Uhtred even carries a peculiar coin like this imitation dinar from King Offa’s reign) they would use from day to day. Place names are given in their Saxon forms but are still recognizable, especially if you check out the handy guide at the beginning.
There are, of course, many differences between the book and the television show, but the essential elements- Uhtred’s impetuous nature, Brida’s bristling at being treated like a non-entity among the Saxons, and Alfred’s bookishness among others- stay the same from one form to the next. There is, of course, more life in Cornwell’s books than there is in the series. That’s the nature of the screen. Certain things must be compressed or edited out completely in order to maintain an interesting, coherent narrative, and that’s what has happened with the TV show. It doesn’t make it bad, it just makes it different.
That said, Cornwell’s books, or at least The Last Kingdom, is far livelier, more descriptive, and funnier than the show. It’s also gorier than the show, since Cornwell didn’t have to worry about budgetary restraints and could write about the fights and battles Uhtred was in or witnessed. There were more politics, too. At least it felt like there was. This didn’t bog down the story at all. I thought it made it more interesting, especially where Alfred was concerned.
It’s also a wonderful entry into the history of England in the ninth century, as it helps to humanize such historical figures as King Alfred and Guthrum. I enjoyed The Last Kingdom and am looking forward to reading the next entry in the Saxon Chronicles.