Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Last Kingdom, by Bernard Cornwell

This book came from the library. It is 12 hours and 58 minutes long, was on 11 CDs, and was narrated by Tom Sellwood.

Be warned: I am on a Bernard Cornwell bender. I saw an add for his latest novel and decided to check with the library to see if they had added any of his titles lately. I struck gold. They had all 3 novels in this new series, begun in 2005. When I put them on reserve, I had no idea that all 3 would be available in just a few days. I must take this opportunity!

This is not one of those smutty romance novels disguised as historical fiction. This is more like "Braveheart", only without the romance and idealism.

Cornwell uses some real persons from history, but his protagonist is almost always some nobody who is on the scene and taking an active part. Uhtred is the son of a minor nobleman in the late 9th century. At 10 years old, while his father's army is repelling Danish invaders, Uhtred is captured, enslaved, and eventually adopted by a danish warlord named Ragnar.

Uhtred's brother had been killed while spying on the Danes before the conflict began which killed his father. Now Uhtred is being raised by Ragnar as a Dane, unencumbered by any rules or priests, and he begins to prefer it. Nonetheless, Uhtred grows up wanting his former estate more and more, which frequently leaves him swinging between the 2 sides when it serves his own interests.

Eventually, Uhtred ends up serving Alfred the Great, Lord of the last Kingdom in England. He is all that has stood between the Danes and a complete conquest of England. This is very much a religious war as well as a war for land, which is what motivates the Danish raiders in search of better lands than their own. The church, portrayed as a hobbling factor to devout English monarchs, wants peace at any price and is always pressuring its secular rulers to let God do their fighting for them. This only encourages the pagan Danes, who see the English as weakened by their Christians. After a bad storm takes out half the Danish fleet, the church and Alfred feel vindicated, but Uhtred is still unconvinced. He still wears Thor's Hammer charm around his neck, and believes more in fate than in any personal god.

Uhtred is 20 at the end of this book, and you can tell there will be more. There is an epilogue in which the author tells about his approach to using the history, and embellishing it, in the service of telling a fictional tale. It is good to know these things if you are a stickler for detail. This is a 4 star book, well-read by the narrator.

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