Monday, April 5, 2010

Audio Book Review: The Last Kingdom

I don't generally review audio books, although I listen to a lot of them. My day job keeps me on the road for hours on end, and because of that I get a lot of "reading" in. For the most part I find the performances range from acceptable to barely passable (if not altogether intolerable), with inevitable moments of embarrassing awkwardness, as it's all but impossible for a single reader to voice a cast of several dozen characters - both male and female - with anything approaching the breadth of tone and mannerism the actual characters would possess.

But astonishingly, in Tom Sellwood's narration of Bernard Cornwell's historical epic The Last Kingdom, those limitations have seemingly been suspended. Sellwood gives his cast of characters not only accurate dialects, but each has unique vocal traits that transcend Cornwell's written dialogue, bringing out subtle inflections that are nearly impossible to replicate upon the page This is audio as it was meant to be, lending the novel a new dimension that functions almost as an addendum to the written work.

In much the way that filmed adaptations of literary works are often lambasted for their inability to replicate the reading experience, such as been my general opinion of audio book productions, and listening to them has been a matter of neccesity rather than a preference. However, when a film draws out the best of what can be translated to the screen and then builds on it to create real and tangible fantasy worlds in which the characters we love can truly come to life - as for example Peter Jackson has done with The Lord of the Rings trilogy, or Disney did with many of its animated classics, such as Pinocchio or The Jungle Book - those characters and worlds come to life in ways a book can never do. The look of fear on Frodo's face, the sorrow of Sam Gamgee, the childish laughter of Pinocchio and terror of Bagheera, all are things a film can do far better than the best words of any author. Yet rarely has an audio reading achieved these heights. But such was Sellwood's voicing of Cornwell's late 9th century Danes and Britains that it came to life for me in a way that was a nearly transcendent experience. I found myself driving ever slower to delay my journey's end (and to avoid driving off the road) as I sat transfixed, my mind awash in the golden hues of torchlit halls and burning ships.

The Last Kingdom is the first book in Bernard Cornwell's (currently) five book series The Saxon Stories, retelling the events of King Alfred's defense of Britain against the invading Viking Danes, told specifically through the eyes of (yes, 1st person again!) a fictional British youth (yes, young adult in a violent adult world trope yet again!) who is taken captive and raised by the same invading Danes that slaughter his family at the opening of the book. Spanning a period of ten years from 866-876, beginning with our protagonist an innocent and sprightly 10 year old, The Last Kingdom brings him firmly into adulthood at the age of 20, with all the requisite passages into manhood such a violent tale demands.

I need not dwell for long upon the story, as the book has long since become an international bestseller - rare among medieval historical stories - but suffice it say that Cornwell has given Tom Sellwood plenty of meat on which to gnaw his skillful teeth. Working in Sellwood's favor is the fact that there are virtually no female characters to impede his progress, although the few there are do not inhibit his vocal prowess in the slightest. I eagerly await my library notification that the reservation I placed for part two of the audiobook series has been filled.