Reviews

THE LAST KINGDOM (The Saxon Stories #1), by Bernard Cornwell

Several times I’ve been encouraged by fellow bloggers to read Cornwell’s Saxon Stories, and the first book of the saga, The Last Kingdom, had indeed been sitting on my TBR for a while, being always pushed down the queue by other titles, even though my curiosity had been heightened by watching the first season of the TV series with the same title. What finally prompted me to start was my choice of gifting the first five books in the saga to my niece, who loves historical fiction: at this point I felt I could not lag behind, and I finally picked up this first volume.

These novels follow the story of Uthred, the younger son of a Saxon minor noble: born as Osbert, he is once again baptized as Uthred – the name of every firstborn and inheritor of the title – once his older brother is killed by marauding Danes, or Vikings. At the tender age of ten, Uthred dreams of becoming a warrior and avenging his brother, but he is instead imprisoned by Danes and raised as one of them by his captor, Earl Ragnar, who quickly turns into a surrogate father.  When tragedy strikes his adoptive family, Uthred is compelled to go back to his Saxon roots, and determined to regain the rule of Bebbanburg, the home fief that was stolen by his uncle.  Pledging his services to King Alfred, who shrewdly understands the value of the young man, Uthred struggles constantly with his dual legacies as he grows toward adulthood and the land undergoes great upheavals when the two mighty forces – the Danes and the Saxons – battle for control of the territory and its resources.

As I read, the comparison between the beginning of this saga and the first season of the TV series became inevitable and of course the book proved far richer and more nuanced than its screen version, particularly where Uthred’s formative years are concerned: the book delves far longer on that time, showing how the boy’s evolving mindset does not come from a form of Stockholm syndrome, but rather from the huge cultural and personal differences between his birth family and the adoptive one.  What we are shown of Uthred Senior is the figure of a harsh, uncompromising man who does not seem to like his son very much and imparts what scant knowledge and advice he doles out with something approaching resentful reluctance – and very little shows of affection, if any.  On the other hand, Earl Ragnar, like most of his compatriots, is a larger than life individual, one who faces bloody battles or boisterous feasts with the same hunger for life, ready to enjoy it all to the fullest. And more importantly he becomes the kind of father figure young Uthred sorely needed, perceiving in the boy a kindred spirit from the moment when he’s ferociously attacked on the battlefield by this 10-year old boy he watches with a mixture of amusement and admiration for such pluckiness. 

Uthred is indeed a fascinating character, even in his early years: it’s easy to understand his fascination for Danes and their culture when we see his penchant for learning how to wield a sword and become a warrior, while he keeps dodging poor Father Beocca’s attempts at teaching him how to read and write.  One could say that the dichotomy is there from the beginning, even before he find himself torn between two worlds: Saxon society, as described by Cornwell, represents well the situation of the early Middle Ages, where poverty and harsh living conditions (not to mention the constant “barbarian” raids) met with the profound impact of religious beliefs which strictly regulated many of the everyday activities and often saw the trials faced by the populace as a form of punishment for people’s sins.  On the other hand, Dane society put its emphasis on personal deeds and the search for fame, allowing for a greater freedom than the one Uthred had enjoyed so far, so it’s easy to see how the call from both sides of his roots would be the ever-present theme of his life. 

Through Uthred’s constant search of a moral compass and a way of life we see the mirror of the struggle the world of those times was undergoing, between the drive for a more organized, and civilized, society united under common goals, represented by King Alfred in his pursuit for a unified England, and the unruly and fractured Danes whose wars of conquest focused only on gaining more territory in which to expand, with little planning for the future.  All this is shown in a quite immersive narrative where the background comes to life in vivid shades and through detailed – but never boring – description of bloody battles whose cinematic quality manages to always bring you at the heart of the action.  Moreover, other characters besides Uthred come to the fore with the same degree of depth and substance, gifting this story with a compelling, realistic quality that helped me fly through the pages with never a moment of boredom.

And what’s more important, this book encouraged me to learn more about the historical period it’s set in, which is something I always appreciate in a story and adds more value to my reading material – truly a win-win situation…

My Rating:

Reviews

Review: THE HUNGER, by Alma Katsu

 

While the fateful journey of the Donner Party is a matter of record for American history, it’s not as well known outside of the U.S.A. so I was not familiar with this event apart from having heard it mentioned once or twice in passing, and as soon as I encountered the first reviews for Alma Katsu’s book I went in search of more information about it: what I found was a tale of hardship and horror whose reality seemed to surpass any fictional tale of the supernatural I might have read until now.

The Donner Party was a group of hopeful pioneers headed to California to start a new life in what was the new frontier for the times, the middle of the 19th Century: they set out from Missouri in the late spring of 1846, but instead of following the tried and tested trail other adventurers had successfully traveled on, they decided to attempt the newest Hastings Cutoff, named after the explorer who had first opened it.

Unfortunately, Hastings had not specified either that the cutoff would add a considerable number of miles to the trek, or that the way was more suited to men on horseback rather than oxen-driven wagons loaded with supplies, so that a series of accidents and drawbacks cost the travelers precious time – not to mention the loss of several animals and even wagons – and at the start of a particularly hard winter they were stranded and snowbound on the Sierra Nevada, as their supplies ran out and they found themselves with little shelter and no food.  The survivors who were rescued by a search party in the early spring of 1847 had had to resort to eating the flesh of their dead to keep alive.

The historical events of the Donner Party look horrific enough in their stark reality, and yet the author decided to insert a supernatural twist to the story, in the form of a disturbing presence stalking the wagons from the very start and at times grabbing some hapless victim whose remains hinted at something inhuman and terrifying at play.  While this choice added a further (and maybe unnecessary) layer of dread to an already ghastly situation, it worked as a sort of mirror for the overall darkness that progressively fell on the colonists, one that seemed to come from them rather than from the outside, a force that was freed once the people were removed from the moral and spiritual boundaries of civilization.

From the very start we see how the relationships among the 90-odd people of the caravan are subject to strain, mostly due to the different social backgrounds and mindset of the various individuals, so that they fall prey to arguments that end up dividing the group into smaller factions, at odds with each other.  Once the true adversities start piling up on them, these divergences flare up, sometimes with dramatic consequences.  George Donner’s wife Tamsen, for example, is a practitioner of natural medicine though her knowledge of herbs and remedies, and therefore the subject of mistrust that quickly turns into the belief she might be a witch, with the consequence that the Donners are shunned and treated like pariahs.  Or once the supplies start dwindling, those with more refuse to share with the less fortunate, all too easily forgetting the principles of Christian charity that everybody seemed to profess.

As the journey becomes more harrowing and takes its toll on people, animals and supplies – the crossing of the salt desert being one of the most heartbreaking segments – whatever shred of humanity the group might have held on to seems to disappear, each wagon, each individual becoming a world unto itself, focused on its own survival to the exclusion of anything, and anyone, else. And once that humanity dwindles or is silenced forever, once any residue of acceptable social behavior evaporates under the hardships, it looks far too easy for the pioneers to let go of their more enlightened habits and to fall back to more primitive patterns.  First they stop caring about appearances:

They were all starting to neglect themselves, losing the will to keep themselves clean and tidy. To remain civilized. Day by day they grew wilder, filthier, more animal.

Then there is a scene in which the starved group is forced to kill one head of cattle to have some food, and the people partaking of that flesh look more like a bunch of cavemen rather than city born and bred individuals:

 

..no laughter or songs or shared bottles of whiskey […] Now it was just the sound of ravenous eating, the smack of lips and teeth tearing flesh off bone.

 

With this particular sentence I was strongly reminded of Tolkien’s description of Gollum, about his “furtive eating and resentful remembering”, and it was a chilly comparison, one that emphasized the regression of these pioneers to a more primeval state, one that was much more horrifying than the shadowy beings haunting the group from the encroaching darkness.  And for this very reason, once the supernatural element in the story is revealed, it looks almost mundane, far less frightening than the mindless savagery consuming the group of settlers.

The Hunger is not an easy book, and certainly not an uplifting read, but despite its bleakness I could not tear myself from it: the author has a way of relaying even the most horrific of details with a blunt clarity that never slips into morbid gratification, and for this reason offers a compelling tale of the heights and pitfalls of the human soul when subjected to intolerable stress.  Like the colonists’ own, this was not an easy journey, but it taught me a great deal about humanity, and I would not have missed it for the world.

 

 

My Rating: