Publisher: Hachette Audio (Audiobook – 21 February 2023)
Series: Cotton Malone – Book 17
Length: 14 hours and 20 minutes
My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars
Prepare for a remarkable and captivating mystery from out of history as acclaimed thriller writer Steve Berry presents another outstanding and riveting novel in The Last Kingdom.
Ever since I started reading thrillers a few years ago, one of my favourite authors in the genre, as well the most consistently entertaining, is the fantastic Steve Berry. A veteran author who has been producing compelling reads since the early 2000s, Berry has over 25 books to his name that blend intense modern thriller narratives with intriguing history elements. His most iconic body of work is his long-running Cotton Malone series, which follows a US Justice Department agent as he investigates unique historical conspiracies or secrets whose revelation will have major implications in the modern world. I first fell in love with Berry’s writing back in 2019 when I read The Malta Exchange. Since then I have gone on to read several more Cotton Malone novels including The Warsaw Protocol and The Kaiser’s Web, as well as the standalone novel The Omega Factor, each of which have contained some addictive stories that I’ve deeply enjoyed. As such, I made sure to read his 2023 release, The Last Kingdom, as a soon as I could. The 17th Cotton Malone novel, The Last Kingdom presented the reader with another brilliant conspiracy from history that was pretty awesome to behold.
There are many strange tales scattered throughout the history of Europe, but few are more unusual than that of King Ludwig II of Bavaria. An unstable and fanciful figure who loved stories, solitude, and magnificent castles, King Ludwig dreamed of a magical kingdom, one far different from the lands he ruled. Determined to find such a kingdom, he despatched agents throughout the world before his murder in 1886. History suggests that he never found what he was looking for, but what if he did?
Now, in modern day Bavaria, freelance intelligence agent Cotton Malone has been hired by his old friend and protégé Luke Daniels to help him infiltrate a small group of radical separatists with dreams of securing Bavaria’s independence from Germany. The focus of Luke’s investigation is the prince of Bavaria who seeks to usurp his older brother, the duke, and restore the ousted Wittelsbach monarchy with himself as king. But to achieve his dreams, the prince needs the ultimate leverage, the Last Kingdom of King Ludwig II.
Following clues throughout several significant sites in Bavaria, Cotton and the Prince’s men are soon caught in a race to find a mysterious deed, one that Germany, China and the United States would kill for and which could greatly shift the balance of power in the world. With the White House, Chinese intelligence, a mysterious Bavarian secret society and a rogue group of former CIA agents all vying for the prize, Cotton desperately attempts to solve the puzzle of the Last Kingdom and the terrible legacy it holds. But can Cotton once again defeat the odds and keep the word safe from another historical mystery, or will the world be irrevocably altered by a secret form another century?
Well damn, now that was a pretty awesome read. I have so much damn love for Steve Berry’s work, and The Last Kingdom is probably one of my favourites so far. Perfectly combining an excellent thriller storyline with an elaborate and deeply captivating tale of history, The Last Kingdom was an exceptional read and one that I honestly could not stop listening to.
Berry has produced an amazing and addictive masterpiece of a thriller in The Last Kingdom with a particularly strong story behind it. Like most of Berry’s books, The Last Kingdom is primarily a modern day thriller that introduces an original conspiracy that took place in history and has remained hidden until Cotton Malone wanders along (that man finds ancient mysteries wherever he goes). As such, what starts as a simple infiltration at a famous Bavarian palace soon devolves into an elaborate treasure hunt for unique piece of history. This latest historical mystery revolves around the eccentric and tragic final kings of Bavaria, and their desires to either retain power or find their own place in the world. Berry expands on this historical detail throughout the entire course of the book, providing a good combination of real facts and some exaggerated fictional elements, which works into the main plot extremely well. This modern day storyline gets some legs really early on as the protagonist and his companions are dragged into a major shadow war with several different factions attempting to take advantage of the situation and the hunt for the historical mystery. Cotton soon finds himself working for several old colleagues, including a reckless CIA agent, while other groups, including the Bavarian prince and a rogue group of former CIA agents, start to use deadly force to solve the clues and find the hidden deed.
Berry keeps the pace of The Last Kingdom quick and compelling by raising the various stakes of the book while still showing off the entirety of Bavaria and its historic beauty. There is a good reveal of why everyone is after the deed about halfway through which sets everyone on the road to a big confrontation. While the full details of the conspiracy are a little over-the-top, Berry fits it into the story well, and the examination of modern and historical concerns surrounding is quite clever and intriguing. The final half of the book is an intense thrill ride in several great ways, as Berry loads up the story with fun reveals, clever twists and so many betrayals. I loved how the mystery of the King’s deed unfolded, and Berry really mixed the various original puzzle pieces of his conspiracy with the overlying historical detail to create a fantastic scavenger hunt. The modern day thriller elements flitted around this extremely well, and watching the various participants in the hunt betray or outwit each other to try and get the prize was deeply exciting and led to some big moments. The conclusion to the story is very good, and readers will come away extremely satisfied, both with how the story came together, and with all the extra knowledge Berry leaves you with.
I have a very deep appreciation for how Berry writes his outstanding novels and I think that The Last Kingdom was a particularly impressive example of this. The blend of a high-intensity modern thriller storyline wrapped around a mystery loaded in historical detail is always entertaining, and I felt it turned out well again in The Last Kingdom. The way that Berry splits the story out using alternate perspective chapters is particularly useful, as you get to see each of the characters interpreting the historical elements from different perspectives. At the same time, several of the chapters are set in the 19th century and provide some deeper historical context to the story, which I felt was particularly useful and fun. Berry really excels in simultaneously showing the different aspects of his story, and readers come away from The Last Kingdom having had fun with the thriller elements, while also learning so much more about some fascinating topics. I really think that The Last Kingdom had one of the better thriller storylines associated with it thanks to inclusion of spies, disaffected royals, and several warring governments, and the way that story element unfolded had me pretty damn hooked the entire way through. Like most of the Cotton Malone novels, The Last Kingdom can be read as a mostly standalone book, and readers don’t need to have any real knowledge of the previous entries in the series to enjoy this great novel. While there are references to previous adventures and mysteries, the relevant details of these are well explained and new readers won’t be thrown by them. However, long-term fans of the series will appreciate the continuation of several recent storylines, especially around Cotton’s feud with the US President, and I liked how that unfolded.
As I have mentioned a few times already, one of the best things about The Last Kingdom, and indeed all of the Cotton Malone novels, is the way that Berry dives into unique and intriguing parts of history to really give his stories a captivating kick. In The Last Kingdom, this takes the form of a focus on the unique history of the kingdom of Bavaria, specifically the last 19th and early 20th century and the last three monarchs of the Wittelsbach line. I have to admit, this was an area of history that I was not familiar with, but that changed after reading The Last Kingdom. Berry conveys an immense amount of detail about this period and the relevant kings to the reader throughout the course of the book, so by the time you are done, you know so much about them. However, Berry does it in such a way that ensures that the reader don’t get bored with it, as he showcases the more compelling elements of their reigns and the nation’s history around it, while also hinting at how it ties into the big conspiracy/mystery of the story. I particularly enjoyed the detailed and fascinating examination of eccentric King Ludwig II. Berry covers so many parts of his compelling life in this story, including his complex reign, his unusual outlook on the monarch, and his infamous end that saw him deposed and murdered. The mysteries of Ludwig II and his search for a new kingdom proved to be a deeply compelling centre for the entire plot and I am really glad I got to learn more about them. Another nation’s history, which I mention for spoiler reasons, is also concisely featured here, and I liked how Berry tied it together with Bavaria, resulting in a cool mixture that perfectly fed into the modern-day thriller. The author clearly has so much fun researching and utilising all this historical detail in his books, especially if the extensive author’s notes section at the back is anything to go by. Featuring all this historical detail works to create a great story, and I cannot emphasise how awesome it can be, especially in Berry’s capable hands.
In addition to all the historical elements of the book, I also really need to highlight how well Berry showcased Bavaria as a whole throughout the course of The Last Kingdom. Many of the Cotton Malone novels act like a tourist brochure as the protagonists travel from one picturesque area of the country to the next, visiting all manner of historical sites. This is very much the case for The Last Kingdom as the characters are forced to travel to several impressive locations throughout Bavaria, including iconic cityscapes, famous cathedrals, and beautiful landscapes. Berry really spares no detail when it comes to describing these locations, and you can easily visualise them in all their stunning glory. Some of the best descriptions are the iconic three castles that King Ludwig II built, which were strongly connected to his life story. These castles form the basis for much of the plot’s historical scavenger hunt, and Berry really goes into the history and layout of them, even describing the furniture and the decorations. You really grow to appreciate these locations around Bavaria, and I know that if I ever get the chance to visit, several of them are going to be on the top of my list of places to check out. However, it is not just these iconic locations that are explored. Berry also spends substantial time trying to show off the intangible nature of Bavaria, including its politics, its current attitudes, the state of its old monarchy, its place within larger Germany, and various other elements of its culture, including a real secret society dedicated to King Ludwig II. All these elements are masterfully researched, examined, and showcased throughout The Last Kingdom, and all of them add to the authenticity of the story in immeasurable ways.
Aside from the excellent story and complex historical details, I also need to mention the great characters featured throughout The Last Kingdom. Berry always writes fantastic figures, and it was awesome to see more of his central protagonist, Cotton Malone, as well as recurring supporting character Luke Daniels. Both are well utilised throughout The Last Kingdom, and it was always great to see them working, especially as they have some major veteran presence at this point and work well against the various forces coming for them. I did think that there was not a lot of development between the two, as both are essentially the same people they were in their last appearances, but they still make solid and likeable central focuses for the story. However, there was some fantastic character development occurring outside of these main characters, especially as Berry introduces an amazing supporting cast of aging spies, angry deposed royalty, intriguing members of Bavarian society and deadly foreign agents. Several of these characters have key roles in the book and Berry utilises them perfectly as great alternate perspectives for large swathes of the plot, producing a complex and powerful extended plot. I loved the utilisation of Derrick Koger, a veteran CIA agent who has history with Cotton and has worked with him/against him in the past. The funny and morally ambiguous Koger plays off the honourable Cotton perfectly as they work together in this book, and it was interesting to see them teaming up. I liked how several of the antagonists, as well as Koger, shared a compelling character theme of people who believe they were overlooked or betrayed by their peers or people, and it serves as a great driving force for them to do bad things. This group of characters and their conflicting priorities are an excellent part of The Last Kingdom and I had an outstanding time following them along this powerful quest.
I once again chose to check out this latest Steve Berry novel on audiobook, which is always a pretty epic experience. Coming in at nearly 14 and a half hours, The Last Kingdom is medium length audiobook, although once you get caught up in the compelling story it flies by extremely quickly. I personally love the Cotton Malone audiobooks as the narration really enhances all the elaborate detail of the story, especially the historical background, and ensures that they stick in the mind. Hearing the key historical facts again and again really drives them home and I find that this helped me get even more fixated on the narrative as I was extremely eager to see how everything came together. It helps that The Last Kingdom once again features narration from Scott Brick, one of the premiere thriller audiobook narrators out there who has lent his voice to all the previous Cotton Malone audiobooks. Brick has a great voice for thrillers and I find his narration really fits Berry’s cool stories, especially as he gives some gravitas and complexity to both the modern day events and the historical elements. Brick also has a great array of accents that he employs to full effect throughout The Last Kingdom, which I deeply appreciated. His various American accents, which includes one from the wilds of Tennessee, are very well done, and I was once again extremely impressed by his dazzling array of German and European tones. Even his Australian accent, something I am particularly sensitive about, was passable, if slightly stereotypical, and this fantastic choice of voices enhanced the audiobook experience. Due to this outstanding voice work, as well as the great impact this format has on some of the key parts of the book, I would strongly recommend The Last Kingdom audiobook, and it is always one of my favourite ways to enjoy a good Steve Berry novel.
Steve Berry continues to impress with his latest outstanding Cotton Malone novel, The Last Kingdom. Featuring his typical blend of exciting and intense thriller storylines and fascinating historical detail, The Last Kingdom is a brilliant read that powerfully showcases Bavaria in all its glory. Examining key elements of the state’s past, as well as its current beauty, and perfectly working them into an excellent story, this was an exceptional outing from Berry and one that I had such an amazing time reading. Highly recommended!