The Last Kingdom (The Saxon Stories, #1) The Last Kingdom discussion

Bernard Cornwell and repetitiveness

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Dino Bojadzievski Bernard Cornwell

I have a serious problem with Bernard Cornwell's writing.

My introduction to his writing was his Warlord chronicles. The series to me was a refreshing wind in the stale, dry air of fiction. It offered a world rich in both sword and pen, where battles were waged in both the shield-wall and royal court. It presented a perspective on the everyday struggles of the people of the age, but also shone a bright light on the shadow war between religions.

I have never been interested in Arthurian legend. I have read a few versions of his story, and have slogged through a number of romances dedicated to him, as well, but have never felt a spark of interest. Cornwell managed to present me the character in a manner which I would never have anticipated, a manner of flesh over legend, and I have loved every paragraph involving him. Its take on Guinevere jolted me into sympathy, and the rendition of Merlin has been nothing short of revolutionary.

So, hungry for more of the brilliance that I thought Cornwell was, I grabbed another of his series as soon as I finished that one.

I read The Last Kingdom next, and I did like it in much the same manner. However, I could not have helped but notice that they are exactly the same series. They both follow the same sort of character, who wants nothing more than war, women and glory, as he sets at battles against armies almost as large as his ego. They follow the conflict between Christianity and paganism, and present it in quite the same manner. They both present the love interests of the characters as powerful (in a manner of speaking) sorceresses, drawn to both magic and madness. The only thing that has changed is that the Saxons were now the home team', and the Danes were the invaders.

I decided I could brush over all of this, and hoped that the next pick would have something 'new'. I picked Stonehenge, and could not have gotten a better book, had it not been exactly the same as the previous ones.

At this point, I am simply wondering whether Cornwell has ever written more than a single story in his life. I do love his books individually, but when I compare them against each other, they do feel stale and repetitive. Perhaps his Napoleonic series are different, but I don't feel brave enough to take on that risk, so I will probably not read any more of his works.

I did manage to get something out of this adventure into repetitiveness, however. Cornwell's books incited an interest about history, and especially the history of my own Slavic people. That, at least, is a good thing - although I am not sure if it was worth reading the same story thrice.

message 2: by A (new) - rated it 4 stars

A Reader You have picked up on the formula. Try the first three books of Sharpe's Rifles. They're great. The rest of the series suffers the same faults. His research is impeccable, his characters are not.

Peter Fletcher He has some great stand-alone books. Gallows Thief and The Fort are very good. I am a fan of Bernard Cornwell but I agree that his book series can be a bit formulaic.

Jeannie I agree, Dino. I loved the Arthurian series, and am now reading the Saxons and Danes Lost Kingdom/Warlords saga. I'm on the fourth book, and I picked up on the same things you have noticed: the sorceresses, the fighting and oath taking, the character of the main protagonist have resonances in the earlier books. But Cornwell is such a good story teller that I don't mind too much. And there is a progression in this series, less magic and sorcery, more religion, as the Saxon kingdoms struggle towards becoming England. Cornwall is obviously more sympathetic towards the pagans, they seem to have more fun, but it is fascinating to see the conflict between the two sides played out.

Otavio Becker I've only read Saxons from Cornwell, but I did notice he uses lot's of methods to incite the reader to keep buying his books, for example: they all have almost same amount of pages and ALL of the endings are extremely tendentious (inciting you to buy the next one).
Today, there is 11 books, when the fzpk will it end?
Not completely invalid tactic, but I find it pretty lame...

John I find his Saxon/Last Kingdom series much more innovative than his Sharpe's/Napoleonic series. I read the first four of the Sharpe's books, and they all followed the formula of lowly born soldier rises despite having to overcome dishonest and cruel aristocratic officers. The first three were basically the same story told three times, the fourth merely transferred the story aboard a ship.

At least the Saxon tales have some growth, as Utred strives to find his steps within a political quagmire that was medieval Britain. And lo and behold (spoiler alert) by the tenth book he DOES get his home fortress back! A good place to stop the series.

Toby Neighbors I loved the first book of the series, and agree that the others quickly fell into a formula. I kept reading because I so wanted Utred to regain his home. But I've lost interest in the series and haven't read the last two or three novels. As a writer of multiple fantasy series' myself, I have to wonder if my books ever feel the same way. Being creative is difficult and I have a lot of respect for Cornwell. He's a good writer, but perhaps working in historical fiction limits him in some ways. It would be interesting if he wrote a book set in the future, or a true fantasy novel. I'd be a reader of that.

Kyle I would recommend a couple of Cornwell's deviations from formula. "The Gallows Thief" has been mentioned previously. This novel could be accurately described as a Historical-mystery. "The Fort" offers an exploration of American myth, told through various perspectives. Another hidden gem is "A Crowning Mercy", written quite a while back with a female protagonist! Essentially, Cornwell breaks from formula once or twice a decade.

message 9: by John (last edited Nov 12, 2017 08:57AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

John I found "The Fort" so poorly written as to think it was written by a ghost writer. Either that, or it was a early novel that Corwell kept in a drawer for years while he was honing his craft, and his publisher pushed him for a manuscript. It has the most cardboard characters and was all "tell" and no "show." It was unreadable.

message 10: by Kyle (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kyle Can't say I completely disagree. It was a slog early on, but eventually it picked up. Is this the effect Cornwell has when he breaks from formula, or just inferior writing? I suspect when readers who are familiar with his writing pick up a book, they have certain expectations, no? I always read Sharpe and Saxon books speedily, but the only books from Cornwell that took me a while were "A Crowning Mercy" and "The Fort", but ultimately I did enjoy them. I've tried twice to read "Stonehenge", but I just couldn't get past the first 100 pages. I've read more than 40 novels by Cornwell and for the most part I know exactly what I am getting.

message 11: by ROBERT (last edited Apr 13, 2018 11:25PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

ROBERT It was repetitive. Shield walls, gutted adversaries and bowels evacuated. Learned a lot about ancient warfare and why Britain is called the united kingdom. Norse, Saxon, Welsh, Celtic and Scot all had their turf. Catholic Christian vs Pagan and as usual the common folk paying the major price in the skirmish. The fortunes of you and your family could turn on a moment,

The amazon prime series the Last Kingdom was a great complement to the book series.. 900 AD england history. A little sugar helps the History go down. That was a lot of history I was able to absorb. 10 books. Each is a 2-3 day read if you are engaged.

It is not great writing but it makes me think of the John Jakes Kent chronicles. Really valuable way to present history that people will read.

Jessica I agree, the Last Kingdom has become repetitive after about the 4th book to me. However, I am committed to finish the whole thing. I want to see Uhtred get a win. I guess I just like his "underdog" characteristics, and I'm ready to see him get rewarded after constantly saving the Saxons. I am on #8, so I'm almost there.

I think it is weird that Cornwell is in the process of publishing an 11th book in this series. For me, it's pointless after Uhtred reclaims his home. He will no longer be the underdog character that I pull for so much. I'm still trying to decide if I want to go past book 10 or not.

message 13: by John (new) - rated it 5 stars

John Jessica:
I agree entirely. I'm thinking of skipping the next book since Uhtred got his land back. It seemed a fitting conclusion to the series. If Cornwell wants to continue the story of England's unification, perhaps he could do it with son.

Allison I can't get enough of Uhtred. I've read all ten books and can't wait for the eleventh. The Norse and the English are my ancestors, which makes these books even better.

message 15: by Dale (new)

Dale Arndell There's nothing wrong with using formula in story writing though when reading a series of books a reader can feel the story's are repetitive. The challenge for the author is to entertain the reader through his characters, story and dialogue and create a convincing world and Cornwell delivers this usually in spades. In my view sometimes repetitiveness is no bad thing. In my view sometimes repetitiveness is no bad thing. In my view sometimes repetitiveness is no bad thing.

Allison Loved your message, Dale. I agree.

Wayne Adam Using the same formula in different series is fine, if it works and in the case of Cornwell's case it works well. I've read the whole Saxon series and it flows very good from book to book. It's a great historical fiction series, good plot, story lines and of course, the best descriptive battle scenes.

message 18: by Chris (last edited Apr 14, 2019 10:34AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Chris Oswald Peter wrote: "He has some great stand-alone books. Gallows Thief and The Fort are very good. I am a fan of Bernard Cornwell but I agree that his book series can be a bit formulaic."

I agree entirely, they are formulaic but so are many series. I know it's not historical fiction but I started reading the Agatha Raison and Macbeth books of MC Beaton. They are a lot of fun but you could almost leave off page 80 of one book and pick up page 81 of another and not notice! Lee Child is the same. The books are thrilling but the stories are all the same and the characters never differ. At least with someone like CJ Sansom or Ken Follett you get character development and different stories. That said, I've read just about every Bernard Cornwell book he has written!

Lawrence Hebb It's interesting here that many are 'bemoaning' the repetitive nature of Bernard Cornwell's writing, yet they've read so many of his books!
History has a habit of repeating itself, and the truth is, if you look at what went on that's exactly what you find, that history repeats itself over and over.
Most novels stick to a formula the main character battling not only the villains in the book, but often their own side as well, and Cornwell's books are no different.
I haven't read all his books, but the ones I have read I've thoroughly enjoyed.

Jacob Black I have to agree. I first discovered the Sharpe series about 30 years ago. Cornwell has obviously done very well out of his writing (and TV adaptations) and good luck to him. I felt the Starbuck series finished too early, while the latest Uhtred books have been formulaic. I didn't think "The Fort" was any good, it was boring. However, his books are easy to read and you have to remember they are "entertainment", not great literature. Other series have become much worse after really good starts, like the Inspector Montalbano books really go off after about the first five, and there are others. It is disappointing when you enjoy some books and sequels let you down.

message 21: by Micax (new)

Micax The Saxon Chronicles are just Sharpe transposed to the 9th century. No difference whatsoever, except that - unlike the Sharpe series - Uthred's enemies are all as dumb as he is. I don't recall Sharpe being quite as stupid as Uhtred is, and the Sharpe series doesn't pretend that the only smart person in the world is Sharpe and the people who follow him - that series also has Wellington and many dangerous enemies.

My biggest problem with the Saxon chronicles is the poor standard of the historical research though. It's rather frustrating, since that is what people always claim to be the strength of this series, but it really isn't.

Case in point: the Alfred the Great of the series would never have survived the second book, let alone become King in the first place. Saxon and Norse culture was _very_ similar - and they followed "ring-givers" as Uhtred calls them; i.e., warriors. This was why Alfred was able to usurp the throne - he was a tried and tested warrior, whereas Aethelwold was a child. A King as timid and stingy as Alfred is portrayed in this series, would never have reigned for as long as he did. And no warrior - Saxon or Dane - would have accepted being treated by Alfred the way Uhtred is treated in the book - behavior that makes no sense, except for Cornwell's need to have Uhtred be broke and penniless at the start of each book.

Cornwell's well-known grudge against Christianity also colors everything in the book and adds to the lack of realism. Cornewell clearly does not understand the role of the Church during this period - doesn't understand that many bishops were noble-born, often wielded power equal to the greatest nobles in the land, and thus showing generosity to the Church was as important to Alfred as showing generosity to his nobles. When Alfred and successors endowed the Church with lands and riches, they were not being just pious - they were playing the all-important Game of Thrones. There is a reason William the Bastard replaced every single Anglo-Saxon bishop within a decade of having conquered England.

But Cornwell apparently fails to understand this, and thus the books depict the Bishops (and Alfred) as religious fanatics, rather than the Lords they effectively were. In one of the books, Uhtred sneers that if Priest are to dictate the business of the army, then soldiers should dictate the rules of the Church. Cornwell completely fails to appreciate that many Bishops were men of war (in spite of one of the book's Priests being a former soldier).

It's disappointing, from a writer who is otherwise good at creating plausible and interesting historical narratives. This time, though, his prejudices seem to have blinded him to the sources that tell a different story than the one he wants.

message 22: by Lee (last edited May 12, 2021 04:01PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lee Russell i have read most of Cornwells novels and started with the orginal Sharpe books way back in the 80s. He has gone back and revisited sharpe with the early novels actually being latest published. These in my opinion are the worst for being formulaic. As for the 'Last kingdom', i was orginally born there (it is now known as Somerset and the Somerset Levels were wear the Viking fleet is set fire too and thats a historical fact). so i have a bias being born 'of Wessex', however i have to agree it seems thats sometimes Cornwell doesn't know when to stop writing. The early parts of his series seem full of promise, but i suspect fall into repetition perhaps with a need to pay the bills. Yet at other times when he could have developed things further...Thomas the archer being an example, he just stops. strange stuff indeed, yet i keep reading and rereading Sharpe...perhaps he's the rough diamond some of us wish we were but are also secretly glad we aren't!. lol

Patrick Clark I loved the Last Kingdom Series, but I noticed this, and put it in my reviews as well. The formula is 'get in trouble, fight out of it, crazy-a$$ miracle saves him for another day'. On the plus side, he does very good research, changes the circumstances a bit. But you can only read about the stench and shit in a shield wall, and parrying the thrust and punched him in the face with the hilt so many times before you tend to glaze over it a bit.

If he did comedy, I think he'd be a good sitcom writer. Maybe 'earsling' would be added to English vernacular.

Just my 2 cents.

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