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.
Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom is the first installment in his Saxon series. The story is told in first person from the perspective of a Saxon man who was kidnapped as a ten year old by the Danes. Uhtred is a well fleshed-out character, and a boy torn between two worlds. He’s a Briton at heart, but he comes to love his Danish captor as a father and respect their customs.
The asides from the older Uhtred as he’s recounting his story can be somewhat jarring and his mild foreshadowing is unnecessary, but Cornwell’s descriptions of ninth century England are vivid and gripping in their grittiness. He delves into the history of an unstable, uncertain time making the period accessible to the modern reader.
The Last Kingdom is both a compelling wartime drama and a coming of age story. The story is an excellent beginning to this saga.