The Saxon Chronicles 1 : The Last Kingdom


Bernard Cornwell




Date Reviewed:

December 20, 2007

thought that The Last Kingdom was the first book in the Saxon Chronicles trilogy, but now I see the Amazon has announced the imminent release of Sword Song, the 4th book in the series, apparently, with further volumes to come. On one hand, I am pleased - The Last Kingdom was a pretty good book, I liked the characters and the setting (I thought this book was significantly better that Stonehenge, the only other book by Cornwell that I have read to date. Not that Stonehenge was bad, but The Last Kingdom is that much better.) On the other hand, I am frustrated, because I like to read a series at my own pace, which means the entire series has to be published before I want to start reading it - this is why I am not currently reading George R.R. Martin's Song of Fire and Ice books - I read the first book (A Game of Thrones) a long time ago - and it was terrific - but given the slow pace at which Martin publishes each book in the series, I am sure I will forget all the characters and plot details before the next edition arrives - who has time to go back and reread the whole sequence again?

The Last Kingdom is the story of Uhtred, who begins this series as a young boy in his father's castle in Northumbria. The Danes invade from across the see, and Uhtred's older brother foolishly gets himself slain in the first encounter - his head is tossed at the gate of the castle. Eventually, young Uhtred rides with his father to do battle with the invaders, but the Englishmen fall into a trap and they wiped out on the battlefield. Rather than trying to flee to the English camp when their army is annihilated, young Uthred attempts to attack the Danes. Fortunately, Uhtred is captured by a fierce Dane warrior named Ragnar, who admires the young boy's spirit. Although the Danes initially treat Uthred roughly, eventually Ragnar comes to treat Uhtred like one of his sons, and he returns their friendship whole-heartedly. We get several chapters about Uthred life growing up as a member of the invading Danish horde. Uthred learns to fight, he learns to sail, he learns to speak Danish. He meets the leaders of the Danish army, and joins them as they lay waste to England.

Eventually, Uthred finds himself back on the side of the English, led by King Alfred, who is surrounded by Catholic priests, whom Uthred despises (they are always trying to teach him to read and write.) Uthred has mixed emotions about rejoining the English, he has many friends on the side of Danes- but on the other hand he strongly wants to reclaim his father's castle in Northrumbia, wrest it away from the control of the invading Danes.

The book has lots of action - battles, sailing, marching, sieges, desperate plots. There are villains on both sides - some truly evil Danish invaders, some bad English characters on the other side. King Alfred himself puts Uthred's life at risk to achieve gains. At another instance, King Alfred manipulates Uthred into marrying an English woman - figuring that Uthred will be less likely to switch back to the side of the Danes if he has a woman on the side of English.

I liked is how Uthred marvels at all the Roman ruins he encounters. The English and Danes build wood and mud buildings, but Uthred sees towers, walls, bridges and roads built by the Romans that are still standing centuries after the last Roman has left the island.

I also liked how Cornwell moves Uthred back and forth between the two sides (as a hostage, as a spy, or by Uthred willingly switching allegiance) - English and Danish - so that even though the story is told solely from Uthred's viewpoint, the reader gets to see both sides of the conflict. I believe most of the major events in the book describe actual historical events, and the leaders of the two sides are actual figures, but it does not seem like Cornwell is moving Uthred around the map just to show us the story of the Danish invasion of England. The story truly feels like it is Uthred's tale.

The battle scenes are brutal. The men lined up in a "shield wall" formation, overlapping their shields phalanx style, and pound with their weapons against the men of the opposing shield wall. When one of the opponents falters, and a gap appears, the warrior must quickly exploit the advantage and attack before the opponents can regroup and reform their shield wall.

This was a good book, I will now get the next book from the library, even though I know the entire series has not been published yet.