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Death of Kings by Bernard Cornwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Series: The Last Kingdom (Book #6 of 13)
Genre: Historical fiction
Pages: 357 pages (Kindle edition)
Published: 29th September 2011 by HarperCollins
This was not as good as Season 3 of the TV series, but Cornwell successfully delivered a fitting conclusion to the first part of the series.
I must first acknowledge that Season 3 of the TV series adaptation of The Last Kingdom is one of the greatest seasons I’ve watched. Death of Kings, the sixth book in this series, and the previous book encapsulated the entire third season of the TV series, and it is difficult for me to not make any comparisons between these two even though they’re different mediums of storytelling. So please do note that my reading experience of this book is colored by my bias towards Season 3 of the TV show adaptation.
“There are seasons of our lives when nothing seems to be happening, when no smoke betrays a burned town or homestead and few tears are shed for the newly dead. I have learned not to trust those times, because if the world is at peace then it means someone is planning war.”
Alfred the Great is dying; no, I don’t think that’s a spoiler. Because of this, rivals—both Saxons and Danes—vying for the right to succeed after Alfred’s death are tearing the kingdom apart. Uthred of Bebbanburg is, of course, once again tasked to protect Alfred’s reign even though the core of his dream is to retake Bebbanburg. Fate, choices, faith, loyalties, and legacies remained the main themes of this particular installment; I really enjoyed reading this book. As I mentioned before, The Last Kingdom series is starting to feel like a comfort read to me. I was feeling slightly fatigued from continuous epic fantasy reads, and this was the right book for me to take a break and recharge. Other than that, although this is slower-paced compared to the previous books, I still find the topics and character’s development absolutely enjoyable.
“Together we would make reputation, we would have men in halls across Britain telling the story of our exploit. Or of our deaths. They were friends, they were oath-men, they were young, they were warriors, and with such men it might be possible to storm the gates of Asgard itself.”
Uthred is now 45 years old in Death of Kings, and I loved seeing how his relationship with all the characters he has met throughout his journey developed. In this book, we get to see Uthred’s relationship with Sithric, Steapa, Aethelflaed, Alfred, and Edward deepens again. Death of Kings also some of the most snappy and snarky lines from Uthred so far; seriously, some of the curses and mockery he threw out were hilarious and brutal. But can we blame him? I mean, the Christians’ attitude towards him was astoundingly maddening. I am, however, surprised by how some key points of the narrative differ so much from the TV series. I personally think the changes done in the TV series made the TV series a much more riveting show. I honestly still don’t know how these differences will play in the long run of the series; I’m about halfway through the book series now, and I’m excited to find out.
“Men do not relish the shield wall. They do not rush to death’s embrace. You look ahead and see the overlapping shields, the helmets, the glint of axes and spears and swords, and you know you must go into the reach of those blades, into the place of death, and it takes time to summon the courage, to heat the blood, to let the madness overtake caution.”
There isn’t much else for me to say, really. As you can expect from Cornwell’s formulaic greatness, Death of Kings was another wonderful—and melancholic—read. After the events of this book, things certainly won’t stay the same. Although I definitely preferred the third season of the TV series compared to The Burning Land and Death of Kings, I found this to be a great conclusion to the first part of The Last Kingdom series. I’ve mentioned in my review of The Burning Land that Alfred’s treatment towards Uthred was awful—and I won’t take that back—but I have to remember that their relationship is more complex than a simple love or hate, and I was gladdened to read Uthred’s contemplation and exploration on how he really feels about Alfred the Great. I’m closing this review with a long passage from the book of that notion:
“I had not liked him. I had struggled against him and for him, I had cursed him and thanked him, despised him and admired him. I hated his religion and its cold disapproving gaze, its malevolence that cloaked itself in pretended kindness, and its allegiance to a god who would drain the joy from the world by naming it sin, but Alfred’s religion had made him a good man and a good king. And Alfred’s joyless soul had proved a rock against which the Danes had broken themselves. Time and again they had attacked, and time and again Alfred had out-thought them, and Wessex grew ever stronger and richer and all that was because of Alfred. We think of kings as privileged men who rule over us and have the freedom to make, break and flaunt the law, but Alfred was never above the law he loved to make. He saw his life as a duty to his god and to the people of Wessex and I have never seen a better king, and I doubt my sons, grandsons and their children’s children will ever see a better one. I never liked him, but I have never stopped admiring him. He was my king and all that I now have I owe to him. The food that I eat, the hall where I live and the swords of my men, all started with Alfred, who hated me at times, loved me at times, and was generous with me. He was a gold-giver.”
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