The Bernicia Chronicles 5
Genre: Historical Fiction England, dark ages
Publisher: Head of Zeus
First published: 2018
AD642. Anglo Saxon Britain.
Oswald has reigned over Northumbria for eight years and Beobrand has led the king to even greater victories. Rewarded for his fealty and prowess in battle, Beobrand is now a wealthy warlord, with a sizeable warband. Tales of Beobrand’s fearsome black-shielded warriors and the great treasure he has amassed, are told in halls throughout the land.
Many are the kings who now bow to Oswald. And yet there are those who look upon his realm with a covetous eye. And there is one ruler who will never kneel before him.
When Penda od Mercia, the great killer of kings, invades Northumbria, Beobrand is once more called upon to stand in an epic battle where the blood of many will be shed in the defence of the kingdom.
But in this climactic clash between the pagan Penda and the Christian Oswald, there is much more at stake than sovereignty. This is a battle for the very souls of the people of Albion.
I must admit it took me a while to get a good grip on this one, despite a quite excellent opening section. I worried that Beobrand was going to sulk all the way through and the book was going to be a one-dimensional, pessimistic “o gods why have you forsaken me?” tour round the northern hotspots of Anglo Saxon Britain.
…the second half leaped into life and suddenly the first half made sense! If you’re me that is. Matthew himself (no less) has mentioned that I seem to read into his work things that even he wasn’t aware of. That’s good, from my point of view. Perhaps as it should be, him all taken with the muse and writing what he feels is right, maybe not even aware of why. Looking behind that and finding out (maybe) what the subconscious was trying to say, is where my pleasure with reading books (especially ones) as good as this, comes from. Face it Matthew, you might not realise it, but it’s there.
So, the book seems to me then, to deal with contrasts. As I began to say above, starting with the two halves of the book, the second giving the first meaning. It’s then about the conquest of the new Christ religion of the Lords and Priests and the Old Ways of the ordinary people, the peasants and the warriors out in the countryside. They’re trying to make sense of their life and the events their masters are making and trying to interpret the ‘signs‘ they see – white doves and black ravens – as meaning one thing, or the other, good or bad. Whether to leave it to fate or do they dare to try and change their wyrd? We find out there are arguments for, and against. It deals of course, with the peace they all dreamed of, and the war they most often saw as the route to that peace. Do you follow your head, or your heart? Sense, or sensibility? Beobrand’s blind rage is satisfying, for an instant, but is it sensible? It’s about concentrating too much on what is close and missing and seeing the big picture. As they lived so close to danger in this time, it’s about the fragility of life and the certainty of death. Can those two live together, or must one always come out on top?
Shown most often as an inner battle between calm and anger, Beobrand is the personification of all those struggles. He is revenge, he is darkness, he is death. His shields might be black, and the Walesic shields white, but to those around him, he is their main chance for light, life and hope. He might be one of the biggest warriors in the book, but he can be brought to his knees by the smallest, his son.
Christianity has almost conquered Britain in Beobrand’s time, but – thankfully for juicy stories like this – not quite. Despite Christianity being the religion of his Lord, Beobrand decides he needs to be the wrath of the old god(s) if any of those he cares about are going to survive.
I can’t take all the credit (I could, but I’m not going to), but…
…I do remember pondering if Matthew shouldn’t touch on the people’s reaction to the Roman ruins they presumably saw all around them. Rather than just a passing mention of ‘giants’ as many books do. Here, the Roman ruins play a very important part in the last few scenes, and for that I am especially grateful.
Warrior of Woden is a surprisingly easy book to jump straight into (I try and read these later volumes in a series, as if I am a new to the whole series reader – and would it work for them? It would). The book obviously revolves around Beobrand’s inner and outer struggles, but that doesn’t mean the other characters are makeweights. They’ve been growing stronger as the series has progressed, achieving new levels of solidity and warmth as both plot-drivers in their own right and as foils and counter-weights to Beobrands often melancholic moods and internal strife. I was this time struck by the clarity and directness of Matthew’s writing that – you know it – along with Messrs May and (hopefully) Lofthouse, has clearly got the Old Guard of Hist Fic writers worried.
Warrior of Woden is constantly in action, flowing south and north, from the high-born to the lowly, it’s full of breathless action, near misses, close shaves tension and suspense. You never really get a chance to calm down and try and guess what’s coming over the horizon next. While I still think he could do with lightening (Beobrand) up a bit and maybe making a bit more of the positives there must have been to life in the 7th Century, it is in the end a beautifully balanced book, that kicks like a mule. Or is it a black (or white) stallion?
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