War Lord, Bernard Cornwell’s final novel in his Saxon Stories series, brings Uhtred son of Uhtred’s tale to a satisfying end.
The conclusion of any beloved series — be it in film, television or book form — can be a bittersweet event. Terrible endings can leave a bitter taste in fans’ mouths, while good endings can leave you wanting more.
Happily, War Lord, the final novel in Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories series (which Netflix is adapting as The Last Kingdom) falls into the second category. The thirteenth book gives us a satisfying ending for Uhtred son of Uhtred, even if we could still do with more of the elderly warrior.
Thirteen books is a lot for any author, but Cornwell is nothing if not dependable, cranking out new books at a rate so regular you can set your watch to it. And Cornwell’s work can always be counted on to be both easy to digest and exciting. A Song of Ice and Fire author George R.R. Martin raved about War Lord, saying he “gulped it right down.”
At the same time, Cornwell’s work is incredibly rich. War Lord manages to honor the many previous entries in the series all while telling its own story and bringing the whole thin to a close.
Minor SPOILERS follow below.
War Lord opens with Uhtred where he’s always wanted to be, sitting in his home of Bebbanburg, content to spend his remaining years ensconced in its walls. But a man of Uhtred’s stature and power can’t help but be pulled into the events of his day, which in this case involve King Aethelstan’s desire to rule the entirety of the island of Britain, and a meeting of the isle’s leaders. From there, plots upon plots carry Uhtred from the farthest reaches of England back to familiar territory for a final battle.
That final battle, the Battle of Brunanburh, is considered by British historians as one of the country’s most significant. Along the way, Uhtred does what Uhtred has always done: sniff out traitors, outmaneuver his foes, and work to better his beloved Bebbanburg and his family that dwells within and without. Like all the previous Saxon Stories books, War Lord sends readers down plenty of history holes, and had me looking up the real-world events that had Uthred scurrying around Britain. Cornwell happily points out the major historical differences at the conclusion of each novel, but doing your own digging is part of the fun.
Cornwell always knew he was going to end this series with the battle that gave birth to a united, modern England, which means that Uhtred was always going to fight not only foes on the battlefield, but father time as well. As the novels went on, Uhtred’s age became more and more of an issue, as he had to get more creative to keep himself from being beheaded by someone younger and faster (a problem the show will face as well). In War Lord, Uhtred defeats younger warriors through guile, and is also removed by his own men from more dangerous situations.
If Cornwell’s previous books had one flaw, it was central characters meeting their ultimate fates “offscreen,” something War Lord corrects for the most part. Several characters banished to literary retirement return for one last adventure at Uhtred’s side, which should be good news for longtime fans. It also means there’s more fear that these characters could die, but that’s a price I was willing to pay to have one more jaunt with them.
Of course, the conclusion of the saga largely hinges on Uhtred’s ultimate fate, and I’m happy to report it’s a gratifying one. Unlike many of the historical characters in the novels, Uhtred was largely fictional, so his end was always open-ended. That raises the tension, especially this close to the finish line. The hero may usually survive his own saga, but I was never sure how things would turn out for Uhtred until very late in the novel. Cornwell does a good job of keeping us guessing about who might survive the final shield wall, with some surprises along the way.
I did initially find one character’s ultimate fate — which comes minutes after an important reconciliation — a bit forced. However, Cornwell based it on real events, so there’s not much room to complain.
It’s hard to find much fault with War Lord. My biggest qualm might be the one Martin also shared: that the books feels like a proper conclusion, and the last time we’ll see Uhtred on the page. We still have Netflix’s series, which is in the process of filming its fifth season, but Cornwell’s novels are different enough to be enjoyable on their own.
Cornwell dedicated War Lord to The Last Kingdom star Alexander Dreymon, noting that even he hears Dreymon’s voice when writing, so perhaps the two properties aren’t that different after all.
If there is a silver lining to the ending of the series, it’s that perhaps it will free up Cornwell to tackle new characters in a different setting. From The Saxon Stories to his Arthurian trilogy, Cornwell has proven a master of the historical fiction genre, and fans should look forward to him trying something new.