War of the Wolf by Bernard Cornwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Series: The Last Kingdom (Book #11 of 13)
Genre: Historical fiction
Pages: 401 pages (Kindle edition)
Published: 2nd October 2018 by HarperCollins
The beginning of the end started with a bang.
I’m not too sure what magic Cornwell used here. I’ve mentioned in my review of The Flame Bearer that Cornwell might be running out of ideas to prolong this series. I’ve even mentioned that the previous book should’ve been the final book of the series. Maybe it’s because we’re so near the end of the series now. Or maybe it’s really because this one was just so enthralling. But War of the Wolf, the eleventh book in The Last Kingdom series by Bernard Cornwell, is a return to form to what made the series great.
“When your grandfather was dying… he told me the crown of Wessex was a crown of thorns.”
“If it’s worth anything… it must be a crown of thorns.”
The story takes place after the previous book, and Uthred is now more than 60 years old. Similar to the previous books, there aren’t many things I can say regarding the plotline that’s not in the spoiler territory. Even the storytelling structure remains the same this long into the series. You know the drill; Uthred is called to protect someone or swear an oath against his will, then Uthred mocks self-righteous Christian priests, then a new enemy appeared, and then there’s a struggle with the new enemy, and finally, Uthred wins the day. It’s not even a spoiler to say this; this has been the pattern of each book in the series since the beginning of the series, and Cornwell retains this structure again here. But unlike some of the previous books, Cornwell did it so well here, just like the early books of the series.
“Christians like to dream of the perfect world, a place where there is no fighting, where sword-blades are hammered into plowshares, and where the lion, whatever that is, sleeps with the lamb. It is a dream. There has always been war and there will always be war. So long as one man wants another man’s wife, or another man’s land, or another man’s cattle, or another man’s silver, so long will there be war. And so long as one priest preaches that his god is the only god or the better god there will be war.”
One of the things that annoyed me so much about The Flame Bearer is the lack of appearance from pivotal side characters of the series. The Last Kingdom may be a series about Uthred and his role in the genesis of England, but to me, the series won’t be as good without Uthred’s interaction with important supporting characters of the series. I do understand that we’re near the end of the series now, and the majority of the characters we know from the first few books are either dead or too old to do anything, but still, they’re really part of the whole essence of the series for me. And speaking of a character’s death, I am not a fan of major characters being killed off-screen. Unfortunately and surprisingly, that’s a big part of the series; if you expect this to be similar to the TV series adaptation, you’ll be disappointed. For example, in War of the Wolf, two major characters were killed off, and their deaths felt incredibly anti-climactic. All that said, the appearance of two major supporting characters in Uthred’s life in this book was enough to enhance this book for me. Plus, I loved Uthred’s interaction with Aethelstan, and we get a lot of that here.
“I have fought many battles. I have stood in shield walls and heard the sound of axes biting willow boards, I have heard men howling, heard them screaming, I have heard the butcher’s sound of blades cleaving flesh, the heart-wrenching sound of grown men weeping for heir mothers’ comfort. I have heard the grating breath of the dying and the lament of the living, and in all those fights I have fought for one thing above all others. To take and to keep Bebbanburg.”
My issue with the way Cornwell kill off his characters aside, War of the Wolf is one of the finest installment in the entire series. Uthred’s dialogues and interactions with other characters were engaging, and Cornwell’s battle scenes remain great as always. War, valor, faith, reputation, family, life, and death are key themes of the entire series, and War of the Wolf has some of the best presentations of it. I have only two books left to read now. I am both sad and happy that I’m so near the end. I hope the next and last two books, Sword of Kings and War Lord, will be even better than this.
“War is bitter. The poets give battle a splendor, extolling the brave and exulting in victory, and bravery is worth their praise. Victory too, I suppose, but the poems, chanted in mead halls at night, give boys and young men their ambition to be warriors. Reputation! It is the one thing that outlives us. Men die, women die, all die, but reputation lives on like the echo of a song, and men crave reputation, as they crave the heavy arm rings that mark a warrior’s victories.
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