The Last Kingdom (The Last Kingdom Series 1) by Bernard Cornwell

A-raiding we will go…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When young Uhtred’s father is killed during a battle with the invading Danes, Uhtred is taken captive by the Viking Ragnar, who is amused and impressed by the courage the boy had shown in the fight. Ragnar treats him more as a son than a captive, though, and Uhtred, whose relationship with his own father was somewhat cold and distant, comes to love Ragnar, and quickly takes to the freedom of the Viking life, far from the tedious lessons in reading and Latin forced on him at home. But Uhtred knows that one day, when he is a man, he wants to regain the castle and land of his forefathers, which is currently being held by his uncle who in his absence has usurped him as Ealdorman of Bebbanburg.

The story takes place in the late 9th century, when the Danes were in the process of amassing territory and control throughout what would later become England. By the time Uhtred is old enough to become a full-fledged warrior, the Danes have control of three of the four old Kingdoms and only Wessex is still fully independent. But in Wessex, a young leader is set to become King – Alfred, a man very different from Ragnar and the Vikings, but with perhaps just as much steely determination under his pious exterior. Odin and Thor may be helping the Danes, but Alfred has a newer God on his side, one he believes in fervently. This will be a battle over competing religions as much as disputed territory. There’s quite a lot of humour around early religious practices, especially on the Christian side – at this point in his life, Uhtred finds the warrior-like Norse Gods much more appealing than the moralistic Christian one as presented by the ubiquitous priests, and loses no opportunity to shock and provoke them.

Eventually Uhtred will find himself torn between loyalty to Ragnar’s house or to his native countrymen, serving both in turn, and always with one eye on which side is most likely to help him regain Bebbanburg.

Alexander Dreymon as Uhtred in the BBC adaptation.
Ooh, I say! I’m sorry I missed it now…

I don’t read a lot of this type of sword and sandal epic so am no expert on the genre. But this one seems particularly well written to me and feels grounded pretty accurately in the history and attitudes of the time. There is a great deal of extreme violence, including a lot of rape and pillage and some pretty gory battle scenes, but Cornwell manages to achieve a sense of the true brutality of the time without lingering gratuitously on the details. The book is excellent on the depiction of Viking life – brutal and bloody – but they are not shown as the berserker savages they are sometimes portrayed as. These invading Danes are more than raiders – they want to settle the territory they have won, often maintaining control by allowing existing local lords to continue to rule as their clients.

In fact, Uhtred himself is the only one who comes across as any kind of berserker. He is no reluctant warrior – he revels and glories in the killing, and doesn’t much care which side he’s on. But he’s telling the tale in retrospect from when he is older and there is the occasional tiny hint that he may also have become wiser. Perhaps. In truth, I enjoyed Uhtred’s character but didn’t like him much. His lack of full commitment to either side makes him more credible, I think, than some of the single-minded heroes of fiction, but it doesn’t make him very admirable. And (this may be a girl thing) his crazed love of slicing bits off people at every opportunity didn’t endear him to me over much, fun though it was to read.

Bernard Cornwell

As he grows into manhood, Uhtred discovers women or, to be more accurate, the joys of sex. Again, happily, the details are largely left to the reader’s imagination. Cornwell doesn’t make a big feature of the lowly and subordinated place of women in this early society, but nor does he whitewash Uhtred into some kind of anachronistic 21st century “new man”. He makes it clear that rape was a commonplace of life, and that the Danes were not the only perpetrators. Women are objects, possessions, used either for sexual pleasure or as breeding machines, and often raped as a kind of declaration of victory in war. However, Cornwell manages to sneak a strong female character in, again not making her feel anachronistic, and there are hints that Uhtred may replace lust with love at some point as the series progresses.

This was my first introduction to this hugely prolific author and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Along with all the action, there’s lots of excellent descriptive writing – I especially enjoyed the sections relating to long-boats and sea battles, where Cornwell makes full use of the power and fury of sea and storms. I’ll happily read more of Uhtred’s adventures in the future, but I spotted that Cornwell’s newest book, due for release in October, is to be set in Elizabethan times amidst the playhouses and acting companies of Shakespeare and his ilk… and oooh! Now I’m torn…

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54 thoughts on “The Last Kingdom (The Last Kingdom Series 1) by Bernard Cornwell

    • Hey! My TBR is bad enough without having the same author on it twice! Nor me till now – I had the impression he was gorier but actually I think he got a good balance.

  1. Cornwell is pretty good, isn’t he? I generally like the way he portrays his characters, even if the characters themselves are not likable. If I were you, I’d hang on for the Elizabethan one – I’ve got my eye on it myself! I’m surprised you liked this one as much as you did, what with all the raping and fighting, but then again Cornwell isn’t gratuitous about it and it is all part and parcel of ‘olden days’ 🙂

    • Yes, I was quite impressed – I often dislike this kind of thing because they go into all kinds of revolting details about life, which may have been true back then but doesn’t count as entertaining in my book! That’s what I feel in general about things like rape – by all means tell me it happened, but don’t try to titillate me with salacious details! But I thought Cornwell got a good balance – it felt realistic without bogging the story down in lots of yuckiness. I do fancy the Elizabethan one… 🙂

      • I think he’s good. I first started reading him because of Sharpe (Sean Bean has soooo much to answer for) but found I enjoyed his other stuff too. I have high hopes for this new one!
        An unrelated thing – I made the mistake of agreeing to read a first chapter of someone from Twitter’s ‘novel’. It’s bloody awful, I can’t follow it at all and have no idea who anyone is, what they are doing or why. Now they expect an email back. Argh!

        • Hahaha – poor you! Now you know why I don’t take self-published books for review, or freebies from friends! When I’ve been caught in the past I usually just say something like – it’s not the kind of thing I usually read so I’m not qualified to judge, and wish them luck with it! (Of course, this doesn’t work if it IS the kind of thing I usually read!) But it’s horrible ending up in that position… the penalty of making online contacts… 😉

          • Haha – that is EXACTLY the line I was going to open with!! It isn’t what I usually read, so that’s true at least. I am desperately trying to find some positive points (some of the prose isn’t too bad) and then gently say I found it a bit hard to follow. Never again!! 😀

            • I always have mixed feelings because I don’t like to be brutal to new writers, but on the other hand if they’re terrible, I’m not convinced it’s fair to encourage them. Because someone later will be really, really brutal to them if they self-pub on Amazon! So I prefer just to avoid the situation arising if I can… but it’s not easy to refuse when you’ve already had some kind of contact with the person. Good luck! 😀

            • It’s so hard, isn’t it. I don’t know how old they are but I feel that if they read some ‘grown up’ books then tried again it might help. I just wish I had never got involved!

            • Yes, it’s tricky. I do think people should realise they must read, read, read and have the objectivity to compare their writing/plotting/characterisation to the best out there. Admittedly the main reason I never wrote was because I realised very early I’d never compete with Dickens… nothing like setting the bar TOO high!! But you could always just say you’ve taken a quick look but are too busy to give it enough attention at the moment, and hope the person moves on to someone else…

              PS I sent you an e-mail yesterday and wondered if you’d got it, or if you’d changed your e-mail over the last couple of years? No pressure if you got it and haven’t had time to deal with it – just wondered. It was just about doing a puff for your book.

            • I will double check my email – I am on the hoof at the moment and doing everything from my phone so I do miss emails. Still the same address so I should have it somewhere! I will get back to you most likely tomorrow afternoon. Thank you – sounds brilliant!! 😀

  2. I think you’ve hit on two things that are really important for a good sword-and-sandals epic. First, the characters do have to seem real. And as a corollary, in my opinion, they need to seem human. Second, the history has to feel authentic. And it sounds as though this one ticks off both of those boxes. Glad to hear it, FictionFan. Interesting touches of coming-of-age here, too, sounds like.

    • I haven’t read a huge number of them, but I do think sometimes characterisation or plot are missed for the sake of extraneous details about armour and fighting techniques, etc. Or else the characters are given anachronistically modern attitudes. I thought Cornwell got a very good balance overall between characterisation and action, and you’re right – definitely aspects of coming-of-age in this one too. And a bit of humour to lighten the whole thing up!

  3. I’ve only read one of Cromwell’s books, and I don’t remember the title anymore. There was a lot of archery involved, and I think I enjoyed the descriptive passages about archery as much as you enjoyed the sea battle ones in this book. He didn’t whitewash anything in that book either, which I appreciated, and it made history fun to read about, which is always good.

    • It’s a tricky balance for me – I like it to be realistic but at the same time not overwhelm me with lots of horrible details about either gore or life in general. I thought he balanced it well, and he did make the descriptions interesting – sometimes I’ve fallen asleep halfway through overly detailed descriptions of Roman armour, etc… 😉

  4. Very glad you enjoyed it! This is one of my favourite series, and it’s consistent in quality as it continues. I’d say Cornwell is one of the most reliably enjoyable writers out there, right across his massive output. As well as these Uhtred novels I’d also highly recommend his trilogy about King Arthur, starting with ‘The Winter King’.
    I agree with your take on Uhtred himself. He often veers into antiheroic territory, certainly not always likeable per se, but I think this somehow makes him more memorable and interesting!

    • Good to hear it remains consistently strong! I’ve been hearing his name for years but it’s not a genre I read very often, so I’d never got around to trying one. But I was impressed – I felt he got a good balance between historical detail and telling a good story, which a lot of them don’t. Yes, I think Uhtred seemed real, which is more interesting than totally heroic would have been. I shall look out for his King Arthur books – sound good! Thanks for the recommendation, and for popping in and commenting. 😀

  5. I haven’t read any of Cornwell’s books either but your review convinces me that they aren’t quite what I imagined they would be in that I thought it would be full of blood and gore on every page – I quite fancy this myself now that I have such a good picture of Uhtred to assist my imagination 😉

    • There are quite a few battle scenes, but there’s quite a lot of story in-between them which doesn’t always happen with this type of book in my limited experience. Haha! Yes, I wish I’d looked at the pics before I read it – that would have given it a little added something… 😉

  6. I enjoyed this one too and at some point would love to read further books in the series (I may in fact already have some on my Kindle) but so many other books calling to me at the moment plus blog tour commitments, NetGalley ARCs, etc

    • Yes, I’d like to read more of them too, but like you I always have so many other books already waiting. Maybe someone will do a sword and sandals challenge sometime, and encourage us both to make time… 😀

  7. I’m glad you enjoyed this! I started to read one of Cornwell’s books (Stonehenge) years ago, but didn’t get very far with it and can’t remember why. I would like to give him another chance and was thinking about trying this one, but maybe I’ll wait for the Elizabethan book instead.

    • I’d heard he had a good reputation but wasn’t at all sure I’d like it – quite often I find these sword and sandals books get too gory and full of sordid details about the horrors of life before antibiotics! So I was pleased at how much I enjoyed it. The Elizabethan one looks like it might be fun – it seems to be a kind of spy thing with added Shakespeare… 😀

  8. I haven’t read any of his books, but your review sounds as if you enjoyed this one (despite the obvious misgivings, ha!) Still, my TBR is full to overflowing, so I think I might pass on another addition. Like you, perhaps we should have watched the BBC adaptation!

    • I did! Haha! Yes, I’m always wary of these books – all that gore and rape and pillage has to be handled well, and fortunately in this one it was! But now that I’ve seen the actor, I might look out for the TV series too… 😉

  9. Hi FF. This was on my TBR shelves so I decided I would read it this month as well. Not as engaging as his Sharpe books (I like how Sharpe appeared on the scene as a grown man with a back story to uncover, a recurring enemy already entrenched, and the novelty of a time period I knew little about from the military side, only as background for Austen books.
    I agree Cornwell seems to know his history stuff and his depictions avoid the extremes that other authors may linger over, although the other historical fiction I have read is similarly restrained (Simon Scarrow, Patrick O’Brian).
    And of course, now I have to get #2 of this series from somewhere. At least its a painless way of catching up on my English History

    • Glad you joined in! 😀 I haven’t read any of the Sharpe books, nor even seen the TV series, but I’m tempted to read one now. I was quite intrigued to see how he would handle the Vikings though, because when I was a kid they really had a terrible reputation (1100 years later – Brits are like elephants, it appears, we never forget!), and it’s only in recent years they’ve been kinda rehabilitated a bit. I thought he was pretty fair in his portrayal of them, from the little I know, and I was intrigued that he claims that the books were inspired by his own family history. I also haven’t read either Scarrow or O’Brian – haha, you can tell why I said I’m not an expert in this genre! I did read a couple of Robert Low’s books a few years back and while I quite enjoyed them, they were much gorier and more yucky in many ways – I much preferred Cornwell’s slightly more restrained approach. Have you read any Conn Iggulden? He’s another I’m always tempted by, but again I sometimes get the impression they might be gore-fests…

      • Haven’t read any Iggulden – although I should – the Genghis Khan series sounds intriguing. I read the first of Scarrow’s roman series because the blurb on the cover was a quote from Cornwell saying he didnt need this competition.
        I do recommend the Sharpe books _ i found the TV series ok but the books much better

        • Somehow Roman ones never work for me – they always seem to get bogged down in tons of stuff about armour and battle formations and stuff. Maybe I should try Scarrow someday…

  10. Although you make a convincing case in your first into ‘re really my kind of thing’ I don’t think I’ll follow you – but you might make me so an about turn with this author, and be prepared to enter the play house world one. Rubs hands in some anticipation. PS I probably said this a while ago, I thought American Pastoral terrific. Still trying to settle thoughts into coherence for review. If that happens – coherence – will pinch thingy

    • It’ll be interesting to see what the Shakespeare one’s like – it doesn’t seem to be his style based purely on this one. But I’m intrigued enough to find out! Oh, hurrah! I thought when you went silent on th subject you must have hated it – so glad you were impressed! I’ll be looking out for your review, but please don’t pinch my thingy! I don’t deserve that!

  11. I have been waiting to see your review of this! I am definitely adding it to the pile. It sounds like the execution was near flawless. It will be my first encounter with the author, but I look forward to it sometime in the future 😉

  12. I’ve not read any Cornwell and I’m really trying to resist as he’s so prolific and I don’t think my TBR can take it! I did enjoy the TV adaptation of this though. And I’m really tempted by the description of his upcoming book, more’s the pity 😉

    • Ha! I know! The very idea of there being ten books in this series gives me palpitations. At least his new one is the first in a series, so that won’t seem so daunting…

  13. Many laughs…but wait! There’s a few things I must bring up, you know, just because it’s my duty to do such things, and I rarely transgress my duty–if you can transgress such a thing. I’m really not sure.

    Anyways…you said you didn’t like the actor! I told you he was cool and you told me…well, I forget. I think you said he looked like a fly.

    That’s what the author looks like?! I’ll faint for a second, which keeps fainting manly, since it’s so short.

    • PROFFFFFFFFF!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      Oh, I bet you transgress your duty all the time – you’re such a rebel!

      *laughs shamefacedly* Well… but… see… at that point, I’d only seen the book cover, and he looks kinda blah on that! But after I’d spent some time googling images, I realised first impressions can be deceptive… *swoons* And look! He almost has a tiny kisscurl! (This still doesn’t mean you can grow a beard though, do you hear?!)

      *laughs* Manly fainting is so you! He looks more like a Viking than Uhtred does…

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