If your knowledge of the history of British Isles stops sometime around at the departure of Rome’s legions and starts again at with the arrival of the Vikings, The Serpent Sword is for you. If you’d like light shone into your own particular historical Dark Ages, with its history brought to full-blooded, exciting, pulse-pounding life, then The Serpent Sword is definitely for you. This is the historical period when legends, gods and language were brought across the North Sea by the resettlement of the Jutes, the Angles and of course, the Saxons. This is the period when many purely English legends began. This is the period when Beowulf was created (‘A great man who had killed a demon,’ as the book says – I spotted it!), when the Sutton Hoo burial took place and even, I would suggest, where the legend of Robin Hood has its origins.
This is where Matthew Harffy is looking to create his own legend; that of Beobrand and the Kingdom of Bernicia.
Northern Britain, AD633. When Britain, was Albion and Britons were Waelisc and England was a series of kingdoms and England didn’t exist… Exciting times to set a novel in, eh? Most definitely.
The Serpent Sword opens with a murder. In the dead of night, an un-named warrior takes dreadful revenge for wrongs and slights, real and imagined. He slays Octa, his woman, Elda and steals the Serpent Sword. Some while later, Octa’s younger brother Beobrand, arrives from his home in the south looking for his brother, unaware he is already dead. There is no time to mourn and Beobrand has to let any plans for avenging his brother’s death simmer, as almost immediately – almost before the echo of his pledge of loyalty to the king has died away – he finds himself fighting for his – and the kingdom’s – very existence in The Battle of Hatfield Chase. Not that there were signs Battle of Hatfield Chase this way of course, but that’s what the ‘disasterous’ battle has come to be known as by us Dark Ages scholars. Those of us who have read Wikipedia, anyway. The Waelisc (which meant ‘foreigners’ to the Anglo-Saxons – but who were actually the original peoples of the lands the Anglo-Saxons were originally foreigners in) under Cadwallon, are victors. Northumberland (a much larger area than in modern times) is effectively divided in two, Cadwallon taking control of the southern half, Deira, leaving King Eanfrith to rule the northern Kingdom of Bernicia.
Luckily for young Beobrand – and the continuation of our story – he survives the battle, though he is sorely wounded. He is nursed back to health by a young Monk called Coenred (clearly a character for development in future books) and in a process that involves treachery from warriors thought loyal, unspeakable atrocities and the making of unlikely friendships and mortal enemies alike, is forged into a warrior worthy of this time of legends. One upon whose shoulders the future of both the kingdom and the hopes of his people rest.
The character of Beobrand is of course central to the book – trouble not so much follows him around, as gets there before him. It is his fortunes we follow as a personification of the troubles of the kingdom. I did feel he started a little shakily, for instance; he seemed battle-ready very quickly and gained acceptance as a warrior a little too easily and some of his outbursts and decisions didn’t quite seem justified by what had happened in the story around them. More description of the opposing forces at the first battle would also have been a good idea. Might have helped with the sense of dread he clearly hoped we’d understand Beobrand to have had. Then there’s ‘the battle calm.’ It did seem to be summoned rather quickly for an inexperienced warrior. Almost like Luke summoning The Force. I do generally need more convincing The Battle Calm actually exists outside of Historical Fiction novels. It’s been used so often in situations when a warrior needs a Get Out of Jail Free card, it can seem a little cliched. However, as the novel progresses Beobrand seemed to grow into the role of warrior hero and it begins to fit him very well.
I also took a step back and mused if his character development wasn’t just a mirror for the uncertain, stumbling from one crisis to another, death of one, birth pangs of another kingdom? Whether or not Matthew H intended it to be so, that’s what I took from it all.
The style at the start I did find a little awkward. There were too many short, choppy sentences that were preventing a decent flow. On reflection, I thought maybe he’s trying the Bernard Cornwell, matter-of-fact, fatalistic style. I wondered if it was because – and clearly I have no experience in these matters, your Honour – the short, choppy sentence style were to convey the tension-causing shortage of breath, quick, darting thoughts that would be how you would be, if you were trying to murder someone? Quite probably. But to work properly, to notice them rather than be irritated by them, they need to be set against longer, perhaps more descriptive passages, otherwise, they lose their power. Feel like notes. That will be expanded upon at a later date. And the style continued into the first section of the book, taking a little of the edge off – for me – the opening first third, where I found myself having to step back (again), to be able to ‘see‘ the story Matthew was intending to put over. Oh and please, never use ‘all of a sudden.’ Anywhere.
Then. Pow! There’s a dramatic improvement somewhere around the one-third mark. Astounding even. A rush of “NOW we’re talking!” as the story, the writing, the whole took wings and flew. Beobrand makes sense, events gell properly and I find myself trying to read whilst gripping both arms of my chair. Not easy when reading on an iPad.
The prose style is strong and clear, sometimes too much so, but then you don’t want to get bogged down in the sodden wastes, wading up to your knees in sludge and cliche of the last Robert Low I read. There are also some interesting, strongly-written, minor characters, many of which are clearly in it for the long run. And of course, ’the love interest.’ She’s a little identikit just now, but from the description of her background, I can well imagine she’ll come more into her own in future books. She might take exception to the clear case of ‘bromance’ going on between Beobrand and Coenred, but then each to his own, I say. There’s also a very interesting point made with reference to the title, one that is not thought about – but then, that’s why I read, and don’t write, books.
So where are we in relation to other writers in similar historical fields just now? Matthew is a new writer and this is his first book. However, the buying public dont know that and won’t cut him any slack because of it. So it has to stand and fall on the merits of what’s on the paper before us. The start did remind me of the beginning of the Hereward books by James Wilde. While it isn’t the main man who explodes on the scene here, it is a formative event and our first encounter with the Serpent Sword of the title (though I did think as such more could have been made of that first meeting). The story includes setting at Bebbanburg castle, currently in Northumberland and Bernard Cornwell’s Warrior Chronicles, though some three hundred years earlier. The Serpent Sword also mentions the island of ‘Hii’ several times, as does Robert Low in his latest Viking story, Crowbone. Though Low calls it ‘Hy’ – we now call it Iona.
The Serpent Sword is just the first instalment in Matthew’s plan for The Bernicia Chronicles. I can easily see how it could be developed much further. Think Bernard Cornwell’s Warrior Chronicles, – however many Cornwell planned originally, success seems to have made it open-ended. Matthew sticks, as far as I can see – and read in his Historical Note at the end – pretty close to what we know of the actual historical events, but there are so many interesting side-references, to Britain, to the beliefs and social situations, that will set you thinking about early Britain and how this fits in with the following Viking era – well, we clearly have many more hours of Bernician reading pleasure ahead of us. And that’s quite apart from figuring out who exactly the ‘foreigners’ were here!
Early misgivings aside, as Beobrand matures physically, mentally and as a character to carry the story, the book improves in every way, becoming a thoroughly satisfying, well-wrought first book from an exciting new talent. Reading surely comes down to enjoyment. It’s something you do because the stories give you enjoyment and pleasure and The Serpent Sword, puts huge red ticks in all those boxes. There’s a whole lot more clarity, sense of purpose and not least potential than many others you’ll come up against and The Serpent Sword finishes well, ties up ends that needed tying, while leaving enough unresolved to have me already looking forward to part two. Matthew Harffy is clearly one to watch for the future and Beobrand and the Serpent Sword is a legend in the making from a time when legends were made. Get in now, so you too can say “I told you so!”
I have found out – mainly because Matthew told me – that the Bernicia Chronicles will be a multi-book series and that book two, to be called The Cross and the Curse is in the bag, ready to go. So that’s good news.