Review: The Cross and the Curse by Matthew Harffy

The Cross and the Curse

out of 5 stars

My version:
Historical Fiction
Dark Ages Britain
Self Published
Pre-publication copy, don’t you know

The Cross and the Curse, is the second volume of The Bernicia Chronicles

Before The Battle of Hastings.
Before Alfred fought the Danes.
Even before England.

Warlords battled across Britain to become the first King of the English.

When Beobrand’s valour brings about a stunning victory against the native Waelisc, the King of Northumbria rewards him with riches and land. Beobrand wishes for nothing more than to settle on his new estate with his bride. But he soon finds himself beset with enemies old and new. He even fears that the power of a curse has him in its grip, as he begins to lose all he holds dear.

With treachery and death surrounding him, Beobrand confronts his foes with cold iron and bitter fury. On his quest for revenge and redemption, he grudgingly accepts the mantle of lord, leading his men into the darkest of nights and the bloodiest of battles.

The Cross and the Curse is the second novel of the Bernicia Chronicles.

Where the Dark Ages come to glorious light and life.

Beobrand has returned to Bernicia and Bebbanburg from the first book, The Serpent Sword. As has Oswald, from exile, though he is now calling himself King. Cadwallon King of Gwynedd and the Welsh are soon dealt with and Beobrand’s star is on the rise. As a warrior, he is awesome, as a man, he is head over heels in love. Sunniva has got through his defences in a way no enemy ever could. Beobrand is made a Lord, with land and a retinue and everything should be set fair for a nice quiet existence up north of the great wall (interestingly, Matthew has them knowing nothing of the Romans who built the wall, the roads or the buildings they see around them), in the harshly beautiful Northumbrian countryside. However…call it Wyrd, call it fate, call it bad luck, call it just being called Beobrand – his life doesn’t turn out this way. Bad luck doesn’t so much follow him around, as get there a couple of days before him. However, bad news for Beobrand, is good news for us readers.

If you liked the first one, The Serpent Sword, you’re going to love this one. This is so much better, it hurts. It couldn’t exist without having already gone through the first one, but this is where the real stuff starts. In my humble opinion anyway.

I can’t hide that I did have a couple of misgivings about the first one. However, I seem to have been alone in that, as the people who matter – other people – certainly liked it well enough. The reviews I’ve seen, have ranged from positive, to ecstatic. And they’re from people who don’t even know Matthew! Or are his Mum and Dad! The first was good. This is better. It doesn’t bear thinking about the third one…

How can I put it? Right from the opening paragraphs, it felt immediately that there were more layers to the characters’… erm, characters. Minor characters are better drawn. More colour. More everything you want there to be more of in your Historical Fiction. I’d put money on large sections of this being written in a rush of enthusiasm and adrenalin. I read it, especially from half way on, that way anyway. I won’t say I had my jaw on the floor at the whole way through like I did for Greg Iles’ epic The Bone Tree, but, you better have something soft on your floor just in case, a couple of times, that’s for sure.

Beobrand, I wasn’t sure of in the first one, or for the first third of this one. However, when I think back, I can see that Matthew actually develops his character very well indeed throughout the book. As the story progresses, Beobrand grows into being what Matthew wanted of Beobrand. He’s not the same at the end, as he is at the start. Realising that, made me even more sure I would be right about giving it five stars. There are still some unnecessary and given the leap this one has made in quality, unworthy standard Historical Fiction cliched short cuts. They “explore each other’s bodies,” she “crushes herself to his muscular form,” she “kissed him deeply.” “Perhaps it is my wyrd to see all those I care for die.” You know them. Almost like nervous Hist Fic ticks, or identity cards to the Hist Fic Novel Club. Matthew is clearly better than that. He’s developing his own style and he has made the Dark Ages his own with this book, he doesn’t need those sort of things holding him back. Not when he can do this: “But all the while the women’s eyes held a distant look. Would their men come back? Would they soon be sewing a shroud while others feasted on the food and drink they now prepared?” I’ll stick my house on that being exactly how it was. Absolutely, undeniably superb. I could sometimes wish Beobrand was sometimes a bit more decisive, a bit more ‘fuck this for a game of soldiers, let’s go!’ But then, that’s why we’ve got Acennan and his “it’s only a bird” eh? Actually, while Acennan was reasonably prominent in the later stages of TC&TC, I’d absolutely not be against him taking a larger role in future books.

The quality of the writing is also improved over book one. It’s a muscular style, no frills, though this is more mature and much less formulaic. There. Are. Still too. Many short. Sentences. Where a few ands and linking words, wouldn’t go amiss. It’s not a Ladybird book (even one of the new ones). But Matthew’s getting it to where it should be.

Whilst it and Historical Fiction set in this period – and for the next 500 years or so – in general could do with removing the constant, almost mind-numbing religious stuff, just some times, I liked the undertone of most of this book. The feet-on-the-ground, concentrating on this life not the next, or getting ready for the next, that often stilts books of this ilk. I‘ve mentioned it before, so it’s not new. He’s not anti-religion, just the characters seem more realistic about what is important to them at this time, they seem more practical. This is often voiced by (my new friend) Acennan, but this is about Beobrand; “He was not sure of the power of the Christ, but he believed in this plan.” In general, the feeling is that the people, the Anglo-Saxons, precursors of Vikings (having that in place will help you understand the similarity of a lot of things to those Viking novels you’ve read), believed in gods. Lots of them. When they don’t know what happened around them, or why – it must be the will of the gods, or magic. Or both. Even the Romans’ works are ‘magic’ here (see Arthus C Clarke on this point). Think thunder (there’s a lot of thunder here). We know it’s ‘the sound caused by lightning, the sudden increase in pressure and temperature from lightning produces rapid expansion of the air surrounding and within a bolt of lightning,’ so we’re ok with that. The person in the field, in AD634, hadn’t a clue. So, it was just as logical to them, that it was a mighty god throwing his hammer around in anger, as variants in atmospheric pressure is to us. It comes down to, I think, mastering the trick of not writing about Dark Ages Britain, thinking like a 21st Century Briton. Matthew achieves this sympathy for the characters of this era excellently. Another interesting point I thought he was making – as this story is set in the period where Christianity was still the new kid on the block – that the average Anglo-Saxon pagans in the field, had no real animosity towards the new Christianity and new god. That they would have happily allowed him/them to live alongside their gods. The Christians were the insatiable ones, those who couldn’t do unto others as they would be done unto. As now. The old gods are always more practical, more useful. From tales like this, you can see why they came about.

There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind, that The Cross and the Curse is Matthew’s step up to the big league. Soon, when you tell people you like reading Cornwell, Kristian, Donald and co, you’ll be adding Harffy and they’ll nod knowingly, either approving of your good taste, or making a note to search out a Harffy or two. I gave the first one 4 stars, this one is better – more consistently better – ergo, 5 stars. For what it is now and for what the series will become in the future.

Related review: The Serpent Sword

Buy The Cross and the Curse at Amazon

Me, on Goodreads

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