The Last Kingdom is the first novel in my favorite series, The Saxon Chronicles, by the renowned historical fiction author Bernard Cornwell. I first read this novel one decade ago when it was a new release and since that time the series has spanned six additional novels with a seventh planned for later this year.
The Last Kingdom takes place during the Viking conquest of most of what is today known as England. At this point in history, most of the land that comprises England was home to four separate kingdoms: Northumbria, East Anglia, Mercia, and Wessex. The Vikings easily overpowered these fragmented kingdoms until only Wessex (the titular last kingdom) remained.
Bernard Cornwell’s tale opens with a young Saxon boy named Uhtred of Bebbanburg. Without spoiling too much, he is abducted by the Vikings during one of their raids and grows up under the care of Ragnar the Fearless, a great warlord. As a side note, we really need to bring back epithet’s like “the Fearless” to add more awesome to our names. Imagine meeting a new person with an epithet like “the Hammer” for the first time. How is that not a great idea?
Anyway, the rest of the novel revolves around Uthred’s training as a warrior, which involves learning how to battle in the deadly shield wall, and his internal struggle as he fights against his own people alongside of the Viking invaders. To make the matter of his allegiance as complicated as possible, Uthred has come to love the Vikings as his own people and happily embraces their culture and religion. For anyone who is interested in the Norse mythology and the religious tensions between Christians and pagans, there are plenty of references to Thor, Odin, and all of the rest.
Be warned, however, as the battles between the Christians and the Norsemen are graphic and Bernard Cornwell does not pull any punches in this deeply realistic novel. Indeed, Bernard Cornwell’s writing style is one of the best reasons to read The Last Kingdom. He delivers the harsh, superstitious, and dangerous world of medieval Britain without any sort of censorship or care to his audience’s modern sensibilities. As a general rule, Cornwell’s novels portray war and the lives of those living in certain historical periods in gritty, uncompromising terms. After all, the Vikings are known for killing, burning, and plundering for a reason!
I chose to review the first book in the series rather than the most recent (The Pagan Lord) because even though this series is truly brilliant, it does not seem to have the notoriety that it deserves. Pick up the first book and experience the war-torn world of Viking age Britain alongside of one of its greatest fictional warrior, Uthred of Bebbanburg.