After not achieving much on the reading front last month, I’ve powered through two consecutive books of The Saxon Stories series by Bernard Cornwell, upon which the Netflix series The Last Kingdom is based. I’ve slowly picked through this series over the last year or so after watching the Netflix show and hearing about the books from my in-laws.
I really enjoyed this series so far, but I’ve learned that my enjoyment of these books, more so than others I’ve listened to on Audible, really hinges on the narrator.
Sword Song, book 4 of The Saxon Stories
As the fourth book in the series, Sword Song may be my favorite yet. Uhtred has come into his lordship with household guards, an estate, servants, and a family, and he displays stern but fair leadership. Brash and arrogant as ever, he still does not hesitate to argue with or insult the other lords or clergy of Alfred’s court.
Sword Song winds through a closer character story where Uhtred is pulled between his oath to Alfred and his family, and a larger sense of duty to Wessex. This culminates in a battle for London, where the Saxons try to wrest control of the city from the Danes.
This book is also narrated by Jonathan Keeble, who is the best narrator for this series to this point. His various British accents feel authentic, he has an excellent tonal range, and his natural litheness with dialog brings a wit and charm to Uhtred’s character that really overpowers his cocky attitude and makes him likeable as a protagonist.
With the return of some old friends and a little more narrative room to breathe, Sword Song is a great catch-up that turns into a harrowing adventure. I enjoyed this book so much that I jumped immediately into the next installment in the series.
The Burning Land, book 5 of The Saxon Stories
The Burning Land is a less glory-filled story of Uhtred’s saga. Five books in, it’s not surprising that Uhtred’s fortunes start to take a turn for the worse, and that even his decision-making seems clouded by his own pride. This is a story of hubris, where Uhtred’s own comes back to bite him in harsh and tragic ways.
Uhtred tries to free himself of his oath to King Alfred of Wessex, and in doing so, finds himself int he company of the Danes of Northumbria. He dreams of retaking his ancestral home of Bebbanburg, but that dream makes him desperate, rather than savvy.
There are few exhilarating battles in this story. Rather, this story is weighed down by a more somber tone and drama-filled scenes as much of Uhtred’s character flaws catch up with him, even in ways he cannot control.
Unfortunately, this tone is made drab by the narration. Whereas Jonathan Keeble brought a humor and wit to Uhtred’s character and dialog, the narrator for The Burning Land was completely humorless. His narration style sounded more like a self-serious Shakespeare reading, which really dragged the story down for me.
I will definitely continue reading this series. However, this experience is making me wonder whether I really love these stories, or I just really love Keeble’s narration. I think the stories are good, but Keeble’s voicing brings an energy, an authenticity, and a weight to these books that I’m not sure I would find so readily on the page.