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The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell

8 July 2008 — fuzzyhistory

The first book in The Saxon Chronicles introduces the fictional Uhtred, a 10-year-old boy whose family holds Bebbanburg (now Bamburgh Castle) in Northumbria. The year is 866 and the Danes have begun to invade the northern regions of what is now England. When they strike Bebbanburg, a Dane named Ragnar captures Uhtred, and then raises him as a son.

Through the eyes of a boy who longs to be a warrior, Cornwell presents the Danish side of the story. The Danes believe the English kings are weak. Indeed, they raid Northumbria, East Anglia and Mercia with relative ease, destroying monasteries, churches, nunneries and the English way of life.

A gifted storyteller, Cornwell makes you feel a part of these violent times. He describes not only the raids and the killings in graphic detail, but the mindset. “Start your killers young, before their consciences are grown. Start them young and they will be lethal.”

To break up the intensity of the slaughter, Cornwell interjects humor. It is, however, a humor even more irreverent than what appears in the Sharpe series.

“Your gods are false gods,” King Edmund of East Anglia tells the Danes.

“Prove it,” they respond, which leads to a discussion of how the Christian god influences events through His will.

A Dane asks, “So would your god protect you from my arrows?” Edmund responds that He would if it were His will.

“We shall shoot arrows at you….” Unable to back down from his stance about God’s will, Edmund stands before the archers, who, of course, kill him. “Nowadays, of course, [remarks Uhtred] that story is never told; instead children learn how brave Saint Edmund stood up to the Danes, demanded their conversion, and was murdered. So now he is a martyr and a saint, warbling happily in heaven, but the truth is that he was a fool and talked himself into martyrdom.”

Regarding King Alfred of Wessex (Alfred the Great), he portrays a man who is pious and sick, though intelligent and wise in the ways of warfare. He cunningly tricks Uhtred – after Ragnar’s death – into fighting for him. Alfred and the region of Cornwalum are the final holdouts by the end of the first book.

Since this is my second reading of The Last Kingdom, which I perhaps enjoyed more than the first reading, I can rate it none other than excellent. The Pale Horseman is the next book in the series, followed by Lords of the North and Sword Song. (Click the image above to purchase the novel from Amazon. Fuzzy History receives a small commission for the referral).

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