Double Book Review: SWORD SONG and THE BURNING LAND and the narrator effect

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.

Steve D

THE LAST KINGDOM Finale: Epic TV storytelling

The Last Kingdom TV series recently debuted its fifth and final season, which I caught on Netflix.

The show follows Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a Saxon lordling captured and raised by Danes who rises to become an important warrior and warlord during the reigns of Kings Alfred and Edward of Wessex. This show is the reason I’ve started reading the book series by Bernard Cornwell that it’s based on.

Having now finished season 5 and gotten confirmation that it is, indeed, the last of the series, I find myself reflecting on what, to me, has been a truly great show.

While much of the story of Uhtred himself is fictionalized, the show is realized with impeccable detail in the settings, the sets, and the costumes. Individual fight scenes are well choreographed and the battle scenes are mostly good if not great.

I’ve watched this show from the beginning, and had eagerly anticipated each of the last three seasons in particular as the show really hit its stride. Alexander Dreymon’s portrayal of Uhtred evolved from that of an arrogant, if skilled, young warrior into a admirable, honorable, and relentless lord who manages to fight both for what is right and for what he is owed.

The rest of the cast is stellar to the point that you might as well read through the cast list on IMDB, because I don’t think there is a poor actor in the entire series. This is the type of show where I recognized basically none of the actors when I first saw them, and now I can only think many of them will go on to do incredible things in television and film.

Alright, that’s enough reflecting. The main element of this show I wanted to call out is the storytelling.

Beware spoilers for season 5, including the season and series finale.

The Last Kingdom’s Epic Storytelling

The main arc of the story centers on Uhtred in his quest to reclaim his ancestral seat as the lord of Bebbanburg. Throughout the first four seasons of the show, Uhtred is desperate to retake his homeland, but is always called by duty, by oath, by extortion, or by his heart to fight different battles. These are so often at the behest of King Alfred of Wessex that by season four, it is almost laughable, except the relationship between Alfred and Uhtred has grown into the dearest of friendships, and you can’t really blame Uhtred for being loyal to one of his biggest patrons.

Season 5 presents a key opportunity for Uhtred to attack Bebbanburg – held by his estranged cousin – at the head of the armies of Wessex and Mercia, now joined under King Edward (Alfred’s son and Uhtred’s liege lord).

In the season and series finale, Uhtred fights to take Bebbanburg, Edward’s armies are nearly thrown over a cliff into the sea, and the enemy they fight tries to burn Bebbanburg to the ground.

This is the moment that any long-time watcher of this show has been waiting for, and recognizes what the show is doing. They literally and figuratively bring Uhtred to his knees, so close to achieving his lifelong destiny, within the walls of his home, and it burns to ashes in front of him.

And then the show takes another predictable turn that is just perfect. They show a montage of previous scenes from the show, focusing on Uhtred’s friends, allies, family, all lost in the turmoil of the previous five seasons (and some 20 years) of Uhtred’s life.

Going into this episode, I was not aware that season five was to be the final chapter of this show. But this montage was so perfectly executed and attuned to the emotional weight of the moment that I immediately knew that this was the end of the series.

After the montage, the sky breaks open into rain, drowning out the flames that would engulf Uhtred’s home, and in a last desperate act, Uhtred and King Edward’s forces emerge victorious. Uhtred claims Bebbanburg and becomes Lord of Northumbria.

This moment would have been meaningless – or perhaps cheap – if the show had not had the patience to lead the viewer through five seasons of loss, failure, and shortcomings with Uhtred. Or if they had tried to drag the show out to extra seasons for no reason. They chose their moment to end the story, and they stuck the landing, something that more than a few shows in recent memory have failed to accomplish.

Finale Thoughts

I did not go into season 5 of this show expecting to write a review on it. I think I’ve only mentioned it in passing before on this site. That finale hit home to me, to the point that I’d like to rewatch the entire show at some point.

I’m also even more stoked to continue my read of the book series.

Please watch this show, if for nothing else, to give me someone to talk about it with!

Steve D

My Ever-Evolving To Be Read or Watched List

I don’t think I’ve ever done a real TBR on this site before, except as art of summaries of what I have been reading or watching and what I might do next. So, why not do one now?

The glut of content nowadays is often overwhelming (I say as I think about future novel ideas), so honestly I feel like I need to set an intention, so to speak, of what things I’d like to focus my attention on for the next several months.

I’m definitely not going to outline every single thing I plan to read or watch this year. We’ll just cover the highlights.

To Be Read

  1. The Wheel of Time I’ve talked about this a lot recently, because it’s been very front-and-center in my brain. I will definitely finish reading this series this year, without a doubt. I’m on book 13 of 14 currently and plan to continue through until the end.
  2. The Saxon Stories, or The Last Kingdom series – This series seems to have many names, but it doesn’t matter because I’ve only read the first book — both abridged and unabridged versions, because I didn’t pay attention to the Audible cover — and I love it. I have book 2 ready and waiting, and I’ll likely be unable to resist it as my next audiobook listen. I definitely won’t finish the series this year, but I like the idea of having an entertaining staple to fall back on when I need it.
  3. An Encyclopedia of Tolkienwhich my wife got me for Christmas last year and keeps tempting me from the shelf. One fantasy series at a time, damn it! Having recently read through The Lord of the Rings, and with the new series set to debut on Prime in September, this seems like the right time to pore over this tome and absorb everything Tolkien-related I can.
  4. Brandon Sanderson – I haven’t even decided which of his series I will start with, but I know I need to dive into his work after I finish The Wheel of Time.
  5. The Storyteller: Tales of Life and MusicDave Grohl’s memoir, which my wife got me for Christmas this past year. The Foo Fighters are one of my favorite bands, and Grohl is awesome. He’s one of the few celebrities I legitimately want to meet and hang out with. Maybe he’ll read this blog and message me!!
  6. A few good social science-y type books – I try to pepper my reading list with history, anthropology, global issues, or other books that blend academic with nonfiction topics. Audible makes it much easier to churn through a few of these at a more reasonable pace. Otherwise, I get bogged down in the details on the page, rather than the overall concepts and ideas. Fun fact: these types of books can be great idea fodder for world-building.

Honestly, that probably about covers my reading list for the year, unless specific titles catch my eye. To the watch list!

To Be Watched

  1. MCU – Particularly the new Doctor Strange. I also still haven’t seen the second and third Spider-Man films. At this point I might just buy them on BluRay since Disney+ inexplicably does not carry them.
  2. Star Wars – Especially the Kenobi series and The Mandalorian season 3, but I know there are a ton of other things coming that I will definitely check out.

Now that those are out of the way…

  1. The Rings of PowerThis is probably a no-brainer, but it deserves mention since I don’t think I’ve written about this show before today, or maybe only in passing. Based on the trailers Prime has released, I have high hopes that this will be enjoyable and well-made.
  2. The Witcher, season 2 – I really enjoyed the first season and was eagerly awaiting the second. For some reason, Netflix had to release this exactly when every other series/franchise was releasing a new season.
  3. Jurassic World movies 2 and 3 – Guilty pleasure pick. I love Jurassic Park (the book and the movie), and even though the most recent franchise is light on the substance and heavy on the spectacle, they’re solid action flicks. And they have. Freakin’. Dinosaurs. Yes, I’m an adult.
  4. The Last Dance – Another one that’s been on my list for ages, this docuseries about Michael Jordan and the Bulls got rave reviews by people I listen to/read who love basketball, so I’ll probably enjoy it, too.
  5. The 15+ other documentaries on my list in Netflix – Aside from the above, there are just too many for me to name. Animal documentaries, six of which, it seems, were all somehow narrated by David Attenborough in the same year, a mushroom documentary, a documentary about drummers, Netflix’s super over-produced historical docuseries. Not Tiger King, though. I missed that train and do not regret it.

That’s a solid watch list for now. Much like my reading habits, I tend to fixate on specific series, franchises, or types of shows/films for a time. At the moment I’m more interested in delving into the back-catalogs on the big streaming services to see movies or shows I may have missed, so if you have any recommendations, let me know.

Is there anything I’m definitely missing out on by not reading or watching right this second?

Steve D

February Write Day: The Climb

January was a long month. I don’t know that is was particularly fast or slow, but I definitely don’t remember the first half. We spent those couple weeks mostly traveling and recovering from the holidays. The last two weeks have been much quieter, in a good way.

February is promising more on the quieter front, which I’m okay with, too.

Last Month’s Goals

  1. Write 9,000 words.
  2. Read 3 books.
  3. Start working out again.

Write 9,000 words?

No, but I got my days mixed up! For some reason I thought Monday, January 31 was actually February 1, so I took the day off from writing. How embarrassing.

I wrote 8,616 words in January, so if I had sat down Monday evening, I could have easily beaten my goal. Ugh. Oh well. I did manage to finish the month on a surge after not writing much for the first week or so, so that’s good news for my February writing goal.

Check out my progress on my NaNoWriMo goal tracker. You can see I only had two writing sessions in the first half of the month, but I still managed to nearly catch up with several sessions of 500+ words. I felt like I hit a rhythm, too, so it became easier to write larger chunks at a time. Maintaining that rhythm is the key.

Read three books?

I read two books in January, but one of them was a fairly dense historical audiobook about the Ancient Celts, so I’m okay with it.

I had started reading Towers of Midnight, book 13 of The Wheel of Time, but fell off for some reason. I am definitely still reading the book, but for whatever reason, I found it easier to do audiobooks in January.

Start working out again?

Kind of, but I don’t really feel like I have a routine yet. I have a plan in my head for more consistent exercise, but it includes cleaning out the garage and buying some boxing equipment. Really, I just need a free weekend. And to buy the equipment, of course.

I’m still into yoga, but I haven’t been doing it as much, or only in shorter sessions to stretch out. And simple resistance workouts are easy enough to fit into my days. Boxing was always a great workout for me, and I definitely need to find something aerobic again, so I’m on the lookout for a double-end bag.

Goals for February

  1. Write 11,000 words. I ended up with a solid writing pace towards the end of January. I just need to start February stronger and try to write more consistently.
  2. Read three books. I am reading The Last Kingdom… again… sort of. Turns out I unwittingly listened to the abridged version on Audible, which is less than half the length of the unabridged version. I’m not going to get into it, but I’m not happy that I spent money on a watered-down version of a story. I enjoyed the abridged version, but now I’m listening to the unabridged version. I’m not currently tracking this reading on Goodreads, but maybe I should. I don’t know. I do really like this book, though, so there’s that.
  3. Continue the slow climb to a decent exercise routine. That’s what this feels like now. I’ve been out of a decent routine for so long that I’m really starting over at this point. This month, I want to create a space where I can workout in my garage, and continue doing yoga and resistance exercises more consistently.

Steve D

Book Review: THE LAST KINGDOM and engrossing characters and story

After years of watching the show and hearing from my father-in-law that I would love Bernard Cornwell’s The Saxon Stories series — now more famously known as The Last Kingdom series — I finally listened to the first story, The Last Kingdom, on Audible.

This was my first introduction to Cornwell’s writing, having watched all of the TV adaptation of “The Last Kingdom” previously. Even though I came into this book with inflated expectations, I was definitely not disappointed.

The Last Kingdom follows young Uhtred, the son of an English noble, from the time he is kidnapped by a Danish earl, Ragnar, until he becomes a man. This first installment is effectively a coming-of-age story, where Uhtred learns how to live like a Dane and how to be a true warrior. He learns early on that he has a strong lust for battle and killing, and he chooses the warrior’s path for himself, becoming caught between his Saxon heritage and his Danish upbringing.

Cornwell’s story is exciting, and his plot is punctuated by thrilling action sequences and scenes of dialogue that do most of the heavy lifting in revealing the characters. Many of the names would be familiar to those who had watched the titular Netflix show, but the story is far more in depth.

I thoroughly enjoyed seeing more of Uhtred’s early years, which are largely glossed over in the show. The reader gets to see more of the relationship between Uhtred and Ragnar, which truly becomes a father-son bond as the young Uhtred grows. This story lays a strong foundation for Uhtred to constantly be pulled between the two halves of his heart — the half that wants to help Ragnar the Younger in avenging the death of their father, and the half that wants to reclaim his birthright as lord of Bebbanburg.

This story also sets up what is sure to be a fiery relationship/rivalry between Uhtred and King Alfred of Wessex, as Alfred ensnares Uhtred deeper and deeper in the politics of Wessex (and his liege-ship), and Uhtred tries to angle for a chance to see his homeland in Northumbria reclaimed. The dialogue scenes between Uhtred and King Alfred crackle with tension.

If I had one gripe against this story, it’s that I don’t know if I would enjoy it as much if I didn’t already know the characters. Being able to see the actors’ faces in my mind as I listened brought this story to life in a way that many others cannot be.

Can’t wait to start the next one.

Steve D