England in the 9th century was a land full of dangers and was deeply divided in the form of four main kingdoms; Northumbria, East Anglia, Mercia, and Wessex. One by one, the kingdoms began to fall to the Danes until there was only Wessex that stood in the way of complete conquest. There was a young man who became a king who stood in the way of the invaders. His name was King Alfred the Great, but he was not alone in his quest to unite all of England. His right-hand man was a Northumbrian nobleman who lost his birthright, was raised by the Danes, and had to choose a side in this conflict. His name was Uhtred of Bebbanburg, and his story begins in the first novel of The Saxon Stories series by Bernard Cornwell, “The Last Kingdom.”
This is not my first adventure into the world of The Last Kingdom. Like so many others, I have enjoyed the Netflix series based on this book series. Once I finished the television series, I wanted to read the books to see what other adventures Uhtred had during his lifetime.
Uhtred is our narrator throughout this journey in 9th century England, albeit a bit older. He began his tale in 866 when he was Osbert, the second son of Lord Uhtred of Bebbanburg, and the day the Danes attacked his home. When his older brother Uhtred is slain, Osbert takes up the name of Uhtred and is baptized by the priest Beocca. After a fierce battle, Uhtred’s father is killed, and he is adopted by Ragnar, the leader of the same Danes who have taken everything from him. Uhtred is at first treated as a mere enslaved person, but Ragnar and his family begin to treat Uhtred as one of their own as if he was a Dane. During the time with Ragnar, he is introduced to Ragnar the Younger and Brida.
To see how the Danes raised Uhtred and how he learned to fight in the shield wall was spectacular, and it shows why even though he was born in Northumbria, he believes he is a Dane. Uhtred’s relationship with Ragnar and his family is broken when one of Ragnar’s enemies kills Ragnar and his family, except for Ragnar the Younger, and Thyra. Uhtred and Brida flee and are reunited with Beocca, who introduces Uhtred to the young man who will become King Alfred and one of his military men, Leofric. All Uhtred wants to do is recover Bebbanburg, but destiny changes one’s direction in life.
This is the first book that I have read by Bernard Cornwell, and it was brilliant. The way he could craft a remarkable beginning to Uhtred’s epic tale is astounding. The interactions between Uhtred and those who come to shape him into the legendary man are enjoyable and eye-opening. Cornwell was able to weave the differences in the Danish and Saxon cultures to create a diverse world, one that is vibrant as it is deadly.
The battle sequences set this novel and this series apart from other historical fiction series that I have read. From minor skirmishes to savage shield walls and bloody sea battles, Cornwell was able to create some of the most realistic battle sequences I have ever read.
“The Last Kingdom” by Bernard Cornwell is a triumph. An absolute joy to read and one that I cannot recommend enough for anyone who wants a fantastic historical fiction adventure into 9th century England. I look forward to many more adventures with Uhtred of Bebbanburg.