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Historical Novel Society

Review: The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell

The Last Kingdom (The Saxon Stories, #1) - Bernard Cornwell

Beginning in 866, The Last Kingdom sets the stage for Cornwell's Saxon Stories series. We are introduced to Uhtred of Bebbanburg as a child in Northumbria and witness the tragedy of the Danish invasion as he is captured and his inheritance stolen by a selfish uncle.

Uhtred eventually finds happiness with the Danes and considers Ragnar, the man who kidnapped him and killed his older brother, to be his father. While this seems farfetched or unreasonable, Cornwell writes it in a way that we sympathize with Uhtred and understand how he could come to love his captors. Both Danish and English lifestyles, beliefs, and struggles are expertly portrayed without a standard good versus evil stereotype. Yes, the Danes are attempting to take land that is not theirs, but we are reminded that the Saxons did the same thing to the Britons just a few centuries earlier. The Danes are ambitious and hardworking but also pagan and ruthless, while the Saxons are pious but lazy. It seems that only divine intervention kept the land we know of as England from being decimated.

As the Danes force Northumbria, East Anglia, and Mercia into submission, Wessex under the rule of King Alfred the Great is the last kingdom remaining under Saxon rule. Cornwell demonstrates just how easily England could have become Daneland in this gritty, realistic novel.