The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell

I love historical fiction. I don’t often read it (and too often fall into the trap of reading historical fantasy, which I’ve found to be an extremely problematic genre,) but I’m usually pleasantly surprised by how good historical fiction is. Perhaps that has to do as much with the nature of the author who goes into this kind of thing as with anything else: meticulous research often means conscientious writing, which sounds like it ought to be boring but isn’t, because it understands that the primary goal of fiction should be to entertain the reader. And The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell is wildly entertaining, hewing closely enough to the written records to make me feel immersed in the era, and highlighting the personal drama of its protagonist, Uhtred, in a very accessible manner while still allowing for enough period flavor to make it all seem exotic. And that last, I think, differentiates this book from lesser examples of the genre. Mr Cornwell knows exactly how to balance the melange so that I’m not glazing over with boredom at all the historical facts he’s unearthed and is excited to share. Historical facts and tidbits of culture and language are blended in extremely well with a thrilling tale of battle and inheritance, as young Uhtred seeks to claim his birthright without compromising his identity.

Another nice thing about this book, which will sound a bit more tepid in its praise tho honestly I don’t mean it that way, is that I didn’t feel compelled to run out and plunge immediately into the rest of the series. The Last Kingdom ends when Uhtred is 20, having covered his childhood and coming-of-age, and there are still many plot threads to follow (such as Kjartan!! I need to know what happens there!!) but it was an immensely satisfying novel on its own, discussing not only history and politics and battle but also the very personal issues of identity and maturity and faith. It was nice to see a hero who is aware of his own changeable nature, and who grapples with it without falling into an existential slough of self-pity. Overall, a terrific book and an outstanding example of the genre. I’m definitely looking forward to reading more of the series, eventually.

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