Saturday 17 May 2008

Uhtred, son of Uhtred, likes to hump things (and fight)

After finishing the heart-heavy My Name is Asher Lev, I really needed something lighter...and it doesn't get much lighter than Bernard Cornwell's The Last Kingdom.

This is officially considered historical fiction and I know enough about Old English warrior culture to know that Cornwell has done his research pretty well.

But saying The Last Kingdom is historical fiction is like saying that
Grey's Anatomy is about medicine. The context is certainly there, but the story is definitely not about the context - it's about what the context allows for, and in the case of this novel, what the Danish invasion of England in the late 9th century allows for is a lot of killing and fighting and pillaging and being dirty and feasting and getting drunk and making sacrifices to Thor and Odin.

The book is told from the perspective of Uhtred who, at 10 years old or so, is captured by the Danes and then raised by them. As a result, he experiences what was termed in the late 19th century by W.E.B. Dubois as "double consciousness" - he feels both Danish and English and doesn't know what to do with himself, though he does know he likes "humping" (one of his favourite words) and fighting.

The Last Kingdom, even with its (perhaps half-hearted) gestures towards historicity and identity politics, is really so into being a yarn about manly things that it often flirts dangerously with becoming simply parodic. Indeed, I giggled uncontrollably when I read the first few lines of the book: "My name is Uhtred. I am the son of Uhtred, who was the son of Uhtred and his father was also called Uhtred."

In spite of (or maybe because of, if I'm going to be honest) this book's silliness, it's still a pretty good read and there's a good chance I'll continue with the series - Cornwell, like so many series-writers out there, just can't stop, and there are now at least 3 more waiting in the wings for me, should I choose to accept them.

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