The Last Kingdom is the first book in a new series called The Saxon Tales by Bernard Cornwell, an excellent historical fiction author.
The setting is 9th century England. Most of England is Saxon now with western pockets of old British (alluding to Cornwell's previous Warlord Trilogy dealing with Arthur in the 5th century) and now the Danes (sometimes called Vikings, Northmen or just pagans) are invading and pillaging England.
The story centers around a boy named Uhtred, the son of an ealdorman, or landowner, in northern England. While his people are of the medieval Christian ilk, Uhtred finds that he favors the pagan gods that circulate through Europe. This, again, is the main dynamic engine that drives Cornwell's ancient stories, Christian God vs. pagan gods. Uhtred is captured early in the story by the Danes, but his captivity becomes more of an adoption into a better family, in that Uhtred, instead of studying his letters and reading the Holy Scriptures like the priests want him to do, he wants to become a warrior, like his father. Being captured by the Danes offers him that opportunity. He also becomes very tied to the Danish gods of war, Thor and Odin.
Following his "captivity", Uhtred spends several years and the rest of the story trying to discover his true identity, being pushed to and fro by his circumstances. He loves many of the Danes as family and loves the Danish warrior ways, but his homeland of Bebbanburg in northern England is the land he wants to retake from his uncle, who has usurped the land after Uhtred's father's death.
Uhtred is also growing as a strong warrior in this story. He looks forward to fighting in the shield wall, a groaning and ugly nexus of blood and death. The shield wall is how the ancients fought. Shields overlapped. Men pushing the frontlinesmen into the opposing wall. Swords and axes and spears taking lives at every moment. This is what Uhtred craved and feared. Would he be a strong enough warrior?
As with the other few of Cornwell's books I've read so far, he gives historical notes on the facts and speculations of the historical record. He also gives his reasoning for the path of his story, especially if the history is not clear or if his story deviates from the record. I find that I really look forward to his notes after the last line of the story in that his interest and scholarship is obviously good. Although the story is centered around fictional Uhtred, the swath of the tale is about Alfred the Great, about whom much has been written and cataloged.
Once again, Bernard Cornwell amazes with his skill at bringing his coloring of ancient historical events to life. I cannot recommend him enough to those who have a longing for historical fiction.
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