War of the Wolf (2018) is the eleventh book in Bernard Cornwell’s THE SAXON STORIES series, which was adapted into The Last Kingdom, on Netflix. It’s easy to see why the series was optioned for a visual adaptation — Cornwell’s prose neatly balances battle scenes and moments when plots are quietly hammered out, and his faithfulness to his faithfulness to 9th and 10th century Britain is admirable without becoming slavish, allowing his room to invent his own characters or scenarios and fold them into established historical precedent.
Not having read any of the preceding books in the series, I was at a disadvantage when it came to jumping into Uhtred of Bebbanburg’s life; Cornwell doesn’t spend much time with exposition or info-dumps, and there were precious few “As you well know” monologues, which I count as a point in the novel’s favor. Fans of either the book or television series will surely appreciate Cornwell’s focus on the story as it propels the narrative forward. Any discombobulation on my part is solely my own fault and isn’t a knock against War of the Wolf.
Cornwell tells a compelling story, to be sure: Uhtred is an older warrior, well-experienced in the ways of battle and the odious politics playing out as Christians, pagans, Saxons, Danes, and so many others vie for control of Britain. He cares deeply for his family, particularly his children and grandchildren, and does everything he can to keep the people of his lands safe.
Though the alliances of powerful people around him seem to be constantly shifting, particularly as King Edward’s health fails and his new wife schemes against his children, Uhtred’s unyielding devotion to his soldiers and his people is admirable.
Caught between opposing factions at pivotal moments in history, as he has been throughout his entire life, it’s not lost on him that the easiest thing to do would be to simply return to his stronghold and pretend as though none of this is happening — but Uhtred isn’t interested in doing anything the easy way, and doing so would only endanger others.
Cornwell humanizes him well, allowing for moments of genuine emotion and introspection, along with careful strategy both on and off the battlefield, creating a remarkably well-rounded figure which feels wholly credible among real-life figures like Prince Aethelstan and Queen Eadgifu.
Unfortunately, I can’t speak to how well War of the Wolf fits into the overarching story or whether character and plot developments make sense in comparison to previous books. It’s well-written and enjoyable enough that I would recommend beginning at the beginning, The Last Kingdom, to anyone who enjoys historical fiction with an emphasis on strong character work and clearly-written, almost cinematic (yet firmly grounded in reality) battles. Should I find myself with enough free time to spare, I’ll certainly do so myself.