Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom is a tale of Viking campaigns with an accompanying Netflix show to its pedigree, and prior to reading struck me as a fun historical departure from the usual suspects of my reading given that the Danish conquests, medieval culture, and the war craft of the period in general has fascinated me since I was a kid. If you’d asked me—shortly after I’d found a Norseman coloring book (lots of red crayon)—what I wanted to be when I grew up I would have said I wanted to be a Viking.
Contrary to my childhood fantasies, The Last Kingdom fell short of my expectations for two major reasons which both find their root in my contention that authors who consistently write in a specific genre are able to manifest a novel of out of leftover dross from previous works:
1) The story is narrated in first person point-of-view (POV) by Uhtred of Bebbanburg. I have zero issue with first person POV, but in the case of a sweeping epic, first person POV cannot leave its teller’s body and so becomes small. Also known as, less epic. The result is a structural paradox which reading experience has proven doesn’t often work. Alternatively, when a story can move around and go into different characters’ heads, it is able to cover a wider, more epic scope which is why so many major epic tales such as Lord of the Rings, Dune, Le Morte D’Arthur, The Wheel of Time, Narnia, Beowulf (a Danish mythology, no less) are all told in the third person POV. As with everything, there are exceptions, but the first person POV fails The Last Kingdom in another way.
The inherent strength of first person POV is that while the outside world narrows, the reader becomes privy to the widening introspective world—witness to the emotions, thoughts, of the narrator. Well, either Uhtred is a psychopath (not improbable based on some textual evidence), or Cornwell forgot to include any emotion because it’s not there. As a nine year old, Uhtred watches his brother, then his father be slaughtered (it’s not a spoiler), and then expresses the equivalent amount of grief that I would have if someone told me my pet rock died. And he’s not compartmentalizing. His motivations are constantly unclear because he doesn’t think, only acts, which makes for a one-dimensional, unsympathetic protagonist.
2) When you read a newspaper article you (are supposed to) get a reporting of the facts. Because facts are to the point, they are sparse. This can make the reading dry, but it is not intended to entertain, only to inform. Conversely, sweeping epics are supposed to sweep, to sprawl, to somersault and get stuck in the minutia briar patch as the author gets lost in the world he or she has created—and all the while entertain.
Uhtred (via Cornwell) does not sweep, sprawl, or somersault. Apart from the final 6-8 pages, the story reads as if Cornwell submitted a thorough outline to his publisher and they told him, “Hey, know what? You have a big enough fan base. Why fritter away another six months fleshing out this outline when we can publish as-is and have the second installment released by then?” There’s no meat, no depth, no stewing over minor details to build a world worth spending more time in. The whole thing reads like a cobbled summary from the research of other projects.
In rare form, maybe the show is better than the book? For me, however, the epic of Uhtred ends here. 1.5/5 stars.