Review: Blood and Blade – Matthew Harffy

blood-and-blade-matthew-harffy5 of 5 stars

The Bernicia Chronicles 3

My version:
Historical Fiction Dark AgesEngland
Aria Books
Supplied by the author, don’cha know!

635AD. Anglo-Saxon Britain.

Oswald is now King of Northumbria. However, his plans for further alliances and conquests are quickly thrown into disarray when his wedding to a princess of Wessex is interrupted by news of a Pictish uprising.

Rushing north, Oswald leaves Beobrand to escort the young queen to her new home. Their path is fraught with danger and uncertainty, Beobrand must try to unravel secrets and lies if they are to survive.

Meanwhile, old enemies are closing in, seeking brutal revenge. Beobrand will give his blood and blade in service to his king, but will that be enough to avert disaster and save his kith and kin from the evil forces that surround them?

I am so, so pleased that Matthew has trusted me with early copies of his (three) books (so far) to review. And I am especially pleased to report back from the centre of the Blood and Blade shield-wall, that the third book is his best (so far). That it is was well worth my time and will be well worth your time and money. Money and time, as you’d have to buy it first…OK, you get the picture.

The book, from the first page, the first paragraph even, had me gripped, positively transported back the 1400-odd years, in a thoroughly wonderful explosion of quality writing and gripping story telling. I thought there was a magical, nostalgic feel to the book, to the writing, that made it extraordinarily readable. What I got was not just an affinity, but a totalunderstanding and love for the period that made the story feel effortless, just as if you or I were describing what happened during our day today, for instance. His words paint a much clearer picture of the characters and the period and therefore their motives, than previously. It’s easy to read, easy to place what is happening and who is doing it, without having it cut out of cardboard, as the Danes say. The reader being treated like an adult, I like that in an author.

Blood and Blade is the logical progression from the first two books, and it is much, much more. It is the natural combination of all Matthew has gone through and learnt writing the first two. I’m not saying culmination, as it looks as though, this learning curve continued, he will only get better and better. Blood and Blade is the distillation of all that is good with the first two and, I think, Matthew has really found his stride with this one. It must have been such a good feeling while writing the book – like the first was “I want to write HF.” Number two “I think I can write HF.” This is both “I can write HF,” but also “Hey! I can write!” I think Matthew must have felt it underway. There is an incredible feeling of ‘rightness’ about the book and a wonderful anticipation that it’s only going to get better with subsequent books. Personally, I think it must have been a brave move for a new writer to choose the period after the Romans, but before the Vikings, in which to set their novels. Especially given that Vikings are dish of the day right now and there are several very good authors ‘owning’ that field at the moment. And Robert Low. The temptation, I’m thinking, must have been to think “Vikings sell!” and dive in. When really, (yet) another Viking book would be filling what we professionals call ‘a much-needed gap in the market.’ You know it. Choosing this period though, could still have been something of a minefield: Invaders that are called something similar to ‘Saxons,’ who later, when we think ‘Robin Hood,’ are actually ‘us.’ Are us now, as we’re Anglo Saxons, aren’t we? So how come we’re the foreigners, and we’re calling those who are already here, the ‘foreigners‘? ‘And, why can’t they spell ‘Odin’ right? Why are all their gods not quite Vikings gods?!’ Unfortunately, as they say on imbeciles’ Facebook status updates, ‘97% of people won’t…’ think about where the ideas came from and how they branched off and how they subsequently came together again. They’ll just think ‘this ain’t the bloody Vikings! What’s going on?’ However, if you’re looking for somewhere to really flex your writing wings, as Matthew is proving beyond doubt, the 6/700s is surely the place to be. Because it’s not the Romans, it’s not the Vikings and it’s not 100% sure what exactly happened in that period. New ideas are evolving all the time, new finds coming to light, and the archaeology is re-writing the history all the time. A very rich period in which to flourish. Clearly a wise decision then, and as Matthew is well on the way to owning this period, and a very lucky decision for us, the discerning Historical Fiction reader.

The character of Beobrand, the ‘main’ character, has matured just nicely. He’s more flesh and blood, more rounded and well on the way to becoming a really solid stand-out hero for the period. Matthew does need to get Beobrand away from his depressed hyena act though. And the standard Hist Fic, ‘nothing says Hist Fic more than…’ touchstone, of ‘battle calm,’ ‘embracing his anger/rage’ all that nonsense, which has only ever appeared in other Hist Fic novels, all of them – so it must be right! And the bad weather, but that’s a rant for another time… However! This time around, Beobrand aside I’ve particularly enjoyed Matthew’s handling of the development of his ‘minor’ characters, some we knew before, some we meet for the first time. Minor characters can be tricky buggers, when you’ve got an obvious main character you really want to work on and who needs to always be the source of both problems and solutions. They are either foils, back-up, or the guy in the red shirt beamed down with the main characters in Star Trek. You’ve got to have them, but they can’t be too interesting, or they begin to make us think the main man really isn’t up to it. And giving Picts an arse-kicking always goes down well with me, no matter which period a book is set.

A series that is both passionate for the period and the characters and magnetically interesting because of it, full of vivid, clear, exciting writing and, above all, storytelling.  I don’t know what he’s done since starting writing these books, but I do hope he keeps on doing it. Surely, a one word acknowledgement of his talent on the cover can be prised out of Bernard Cornwell sometime soon. And it won’t be “Who?”

You can buy Blood and Blade at Amazon

I’m also on Goodreads

Related reviews on Speesh Reads:

The Serpent SwordThe Cross and The Curse

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