Friday, October 15, 2021

"The Last Kingdom" by Bernard Cornwell--Fiction Review

We’re going back in time this week, Obscurists, to resist and fight the Vikings—he said with no sense of irony—so grab your blades! Ok, don’t do that, just pick up this book “The Last Kingdom” by Bernard Cornwell.

Bernard Cornwell

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

I loved a character in Cornwell’s “Agincourt” novel, which I described as a human grizzly bear with a heart of gold in my review of that book. Sadly though, that character wasn’t actually the protagonist of that story. In “The Last Kingdom,” though, Uhtred is very much like that character but younger, and we follow him as he grows up. So I loved that. He’s compelling to me because he’s practical, often irreverent, and sarcastically funny with a touch of cynicism.

Cornwell weaves in his plot and his characters alongside historical persons, places, and events beautifully. Maybe I’d see the seams a little better if I knew my English history better, but it’s hard to imagine that I, as an American jack-of-all-trades when it comes to books, will ever achieve the same depth of understanding of the subject as Cornwell. So I probably won’t ever be able to detect a historical inaccuracy in his work that snaps my suspension of disbelief.

The action scenes in this book are all rigorously detailed from the characters’ perspectives. It’s hard to tell how any one battle is really going or what is happening until a character directly tells us, but I think that’s a stylistic choice. It simulates the fog of war, and there isn’t ever an omnipotent godlike narrator describing the battle—just Uhtred.

What I don’t love about this book:

So at first, I was a little hesitant to pick up “The Last Kingdom” because even though I had a great time with Cornwell’s standalone novel “Agincourt,” this book is the first of a very long series. It’s not that I don’t like a series of books. It’s just that it takes me a long, long time to finish any series by the nature of how I read books, all scattershot and whatnot. So any series I decide to pick up will be with me for probably years as I plod my way through it.

I am generally not one to get in a twist about prologues—which seem fashionable to hate nowadays—but that being said, it goes on for over an hour in the audiobook. Not only do I find that a bit long for a prologue it’s also about thirty minutes longer than my ideal chapter length. So really, the prologue is just a chapter one dressed up in a prologue’s undergarments. Parading around in those underpants for way—way too long, its corpulence threatening to split the stitching. Also, it starts out on the rather unexciting dithering on alternative spellings of the protagonist’s name—historically a real problem, but interesting to few.

Also, all the chapters are quite long, and per usual, I’m not such a big fan of that fact.

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***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

“The Last Kingdom” begins with a framing story of Earl Uhtred as an old man telling the story of his youth—which includes a rather lengthy prologue of how he became known as Uhtred. It was his father’s name, who was an Ealdorman of Northumbria, a sort of Duke or Earl. Anyway, it was a family tradition that the eldest son is named Uhtred, but that was actually our Uhtred’s eldest brother. But the brother is murdered by invading Danes at the beginning of the story. Thus changing the protagonist’s name to Uhtred shortly before a decisive battle against the Danes where Uhtred’s father, the Ealdorman, was killed.

Uhtred was spared because he impresses one of the Danish leaders, named Ragnar, by attacking him with a shitty sword that immediately breaks. Ragnar thought the spectacle hilarious since Uhtred was still just a young boy. Thus begins Uhtred’s life with the Danes—ostensibly as a valuable hostage, but in reality more like a ward of and eventually an adopted son of Ragnar.

The years of Uhtred’s childhood, despite the circumstances, are tough physically but happy. The Vikings may have invaded his lands and took him captive, but they also raised and educated Uhtred. They taught him how to be a man, to fight, and practical skills. Ragnar was a far more loving father figure than Uhtred’s own father and uncle. Ragnar’s sons were better brothers to him as well. 

Uhtred was on the path to be a content warrior in the service of the Danes as they conquered all of England, but two disasters changed his course. The first was while the Danes found easy success in conquering the north of England, they found stiffer resistance in the south and were even unexpectantly thrown back. The second was when Uhtred’s adoptive father, Ragnar, was killed by a fellow Dane, a rival, in an ambush.

Now, having no place with the Danes and his traitorous uncle out for his blood, Uhtred made his way south and found his way into the service of King Alfred. Alfred, a Wessex King, was the last real hold out against Danish overlordship. Other than a surprising talent for warfare, he couldn’t have been any more different than Ragnar—and by association Uhtred. But he recognized the potential in Uhtred, who was born of the British isles and therefore a natural ally through birth against the Danes, since Ragnar aside, they were the reason he lost his inheritance.

So began Uhtred’s life fighting for King Alfred against the Danes. He even got married and had a child and still, as a young man, led a surprisingly successful battle against one of the greatest of the Danes, killing him in single combat. But at the end of the book, the battles and war against the Danes are far from over.


The illusion Cornwell creates that we’re actually reading—or in my case listening—to Uhtred’s words I found mesmerizing. It taps into the same sort of fireside story as if told by a grandfather about his life which is why it was hard for me to ever put it down. When using a first-person perspective works, I’m always impressed because a lot can go wrong. The biggest thing that worries me in a first-person perspective novel is that the character voice of everyone else in the story can sometimes slip into one of two extremes. Either every character sounds like the protagonist or ridiculously different. Adding in the dimension that the author should remember to filter all other character’s through the lens the protagonist sees them births a challenging story problem.

On top of all of that, Cornwell is writing a historical novel with actual historical people mixed in and weaving in dialect and terminology choices relevant to the era but still accessible to a modern reader. The complexity of telling a story with so many moving parts and making it look effortless is superhuman to me.

Where this story can sometimes stumble, though, is there are a lot of characters. So on top of trying to hold them all in your head, it can be argued many characters within the supplemental cast don’t get fully realized and fleshed out. The Danes are probably the most developed in this book, other than Uthred himself, of course. Still, after Ragnar’s murder, Uthred spends a considerable amount of time in the novel with Alfred’s people, and none of them ever seem to have the same level of detail. It occurs to me this may have been a stylistic choice since Uthred is still a young man who idealizes the Danes probably more than he should. So maybe it’s just his perception of those people, but it’s unclear to me.

Parting thoughts:

So as what should be clear by now, I spend a fair amount of my time reading. It is my experience that when taking up the hobby of reading, most people tend to specialize. There are certainly a lot of advantages to specialized knowledge. For example, you can have deeper conversations about the things you like. People start to regard you as an expert at a certain point, and—assuming you’re interested in your specialty—you never feel like you’re wasting your time with something.

The modern world even seems to reward specialists over generalists in other pursuits other than reading. Professionally speaking, if you look at medical doctors, it feels like there isn’t just a plethora of specialties but an uncountable number, which increases all the time.

I can appreciate the highly honed skill of a specialist—even admire it—but that being said, I’m a great skeptic on the overemphasis of specialty from a societal standpoint. It’s so central to my character, in fact, that it’s why I read so broadly because I find that if I had never moved beyond the initial interests of my formative years, there is so much I would have missed out on. When I was younger, my favorite stories were fantasy or science fiction—and I certainly still read a lot of those today—but you notice this book doesn’t really fit into either one of those categories. Sure, there’s a lot of medieval action and swordplay that probably would have appealed to fifteen-year-old Kevin, but all the historical points would have been lost on him.

Another thing I’ve found is by being broad in my thinking and reading, I can make associations that wouldn’t occur to more specialized readers by pulling from vastly different sources. One of my core values is that all knowledge is worth knowing something about, even if it’s not terribly interesting to me at first. Because I’ve found that once you get past the initial time investment of learning something that doesn’t innately interest you, new vistas open up, and what you’re capable of enjoying increases. It’s what led me to my love of the classics, history, medicine, physics, and even horror, which is primarily the kind of fiction that I write now.

Returning to my example of medicine for my final thought, another value of mine is balance, and medicine in the United States is anything but balanced. Sure, there are things to discuss with insurance and how fucked it is, but I want to point out the growing scarcity of primary care doctors, aka general practitioners. There are complicated reasons for this shortage. Part of it is there is just overall a shortage of new doctors entering the profession versus retiring due to differences in age demographics. But another contributing factor is there are very real financial incentives to young medical students to seek to specialize as soon as possible for economic reasons. As the costs of education, housing, and everything else increase, the pressure to specialize to pay off student loans increases.

If you want to depress yourself, do a quick google search regarding the shortage of primary care doctors and how many people might be left out in the cold soon. That’s just one reason I’m skeptical of overspecialization—because it creates blind spots.

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