I read The Pale Rider first, knowing it was the second in the Saxon Stories series, because it was at the Agoura Hills Book Cellar (hardbacks for $1.00), and I, by policy, grab any Cornwell title I don’t already have. (I had the sixth book in the series already, but not the first.) I was interested in reading the second book in a series, before the first, to see if I somehow felt like it was an incomplete experience. I loved it as a standalone read. It gave me a rich insight into a piece of history of which I only had a general knowledge: the late ninth and early tenth century England, the era when the Viking hold on the region was tenacious, and one man had a vision of unification for the land: Alfred the Great.
The main character of The Last Kingdom—and Saxon Stories series—is Lord Uhtred of Bebbanburg. He narrates his story in the first person, an old man, remembering his storied life as a witness and participant in the historic forming of England under the leadership of Alfred the Great. Alfred was the first king with the vision and the plan to bring England under one rule, and the only English king to be titled “the Great.” Born of an old Saxon family which had lived for years in the coastal fortified town of Bebbanburg in Northumbria—(what is now the part of England just south of Scotland on the English Channel)—Uhtred recounts his days as a boy, captured by the Vikings, and nurturing the old pagan ways of worship, only to find himself later, a seasoned young warrior, fighting on the side of Alfred. Not yet known as "The Great", Alfred was king of Wessex, the southernmost kingdom of the land. Uhtred’s struggle to maintain his personal integrity with the pagan gods, and balancing it against Alfred’s devout Christianity, is juxtaposed with the Saxon's undying dream to return to Bebbanburg and reclaim his title as Alfred maintains his dedicated, and sometimes desperate, struggle against the Vikings. Uhtred’s allegiances are conflicted. Feeling loyalty and warmth toward some Vikings lords, while harboring blood feud rivalries with others, Uhtred is Alfred’s most potent weapon against the Vikings. But Alfred also feels he can never truly trust Uhtred. The Last Kingdom was a rich entertaining, page-turner, and I was compelled to forge on through more of the riveting Saxon Stories. I then read the third through sixth books in the series: Lords of the North, Sword Song, The Burning Land and Death of Kings. I’ve got two more to go.
NOTE: Check out Bernard Cornwell's Reading Club, where my book Sub Rosa - Sanctuary's End is posted.