Review: A Time For Swords – Matthew Harffy

My version: eBook
Genre: Historical Fiction, England, Vikings
Head of Zeus
First published: 2020
ISBN: 9781838932855
Pages: 496

From the cover:
There had been portents – famine, whirlwinds, lightning from clear skies, serpents seen flying through the air. But when the raiders came, no one was prepared.
They came from the North, their dragon-prowed longships gliding out of the dawn mist as they descended on the kingdom’s most sacred site.
It is 8th June AD793, and with the pillage of the monastery on Lindisfarne, the Viking Age has begun.
While his fellow monks flee before the Norse onslaught, one young novice stands his ground. He has been taught to turn the other cheek, but faced with the slaughter of his brothers and the pagan desecration of his church, forgiveness is impossible.
Hunlaf soon learns that there is a time for faith and prayer . . . and there is a time for swords. 

No Beobrand?! Later in time?! Dear lord, what strange beast is this?! I’m all lost in the Dark Ages here! But wait, what is this I see?! “…of warriors soaking the earth with slaughter-sweat and feeding the crows with the bloody…” Ahhh…that’s better, a sure sign that we’re deep into Matthew Harffy-territory here. If I were (outside of this review) to mention that to the great Mr Harffy, he would insist he puts them in just for me. It’s flattering and as I’m in a reasonable mood today, I’ll believe him.

As I suggested above, whilst this is a new story by Matthew H, set a hundred years or more (?) after events in the great series of Beobrand stories (The Bernicia Chronicles) he is justly famous for. The story is still set in the north of England around Beobrand’s old stamping grounds in Northumberland. Now, this is going to sound for a while like I’m not too happy with the book, that’s not what I am at all. The style Matthew has chosen here is of an old warrior, Hunlaf, at, or towards the end of his life, recounting his life, writing it, in secluded cloisters – an abbey – after (in his case) returning to his first calling of being a monk. Every so often, the Hunlaf of the ‘present’ makes a comment or two, before resuming his tale that happened back at the beginnings of his life. Sound familiar? Because I’m so bleeding old, and have read so many – and can remember reading so many – books more than most people, I have of course come across this device before. If we just think recently in Historical Fiction circles, think Angus Donald’s Outlaw Robin Hood series, and think Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom series. Alan Dale was writing his memories of his youth and exploits with Robin Hood when he (Alan) was an old man) and Uhtred is recounting his adventures while he was squirrelled away in a monastery at the end of his life, if I’m not much mistaken (I haven’t read the final one as yet, though as I was sure there were only going to be nine and the final one is number 13, I’m not saying it’s the final, final one as yet. Unless you know that he dies in the last one…though as the story is told by him, it would be tricky to have him die, unless it ends mid sentence…ahem, anyway...). Hunlaf is a monk who finds himself in the monastery on the (sometimes) island of Lindisfarne on the fateful day that kick-started started the Viking Age (though there was a raid on the south of England some years before, Lindisfarne is given the credit). Far from trying to hide and be cut down by the terrifying heathen men who materialise from the mists one fateful January day, Hunlaf finds within him a fighting ability, a lust for battle, that he didn’t know he had and which seems at odds with his life as a monk. And there’s the story’s start right there. Will Hunlaf give in to the devil within and fight back against the devils from without, or will he return to the path of peace and light? Well, as this is both a story about the Vikings, and is by Matthew Harffy…I’ll give you no points for guessing which wins the day.

Well, once we get through that slightly formulaic starting scenario, Matthew’s talent for nailing a story telling really comes out and shines. The characters are, dare I say it, his best yet. Hunlaf is one to run with as he is. The others…well, the ‘big’ one…it would be wrong of me to say too much about him, or even what his name is, as that would spoil something of the early plot. There are several others fighting (you see what I did there?) for our attention – and leadership of the band that is put together – a little Dirty Dozen, Robin Hood-like, as the (growing) team journey through the north of England. Each of them, dare I say, could be strong enough for their own spin off adventures (I’ll take 30%, if that’s alright MH?), a back story for some of them at least, if you understand me… The making sure that each of the lands of the Islands of Britain is represented, is a little forced, I felt, but once established, the characters develop and are so strong, I’ll forgive him for that.

The story rushed past me at a fearsome, furious, breathless pace. You know, if you know any history of the period, that the band of warriors can’t stop the invaders, but equally, you know that there will be robbing, stealing, attacking, defending, skulduggery, revenge, last-ditch escapes, HUGE battles, surprising outcomes and when it’s Matthew Harffy, some of the best Historical Fiction entertainment you’ll ever clap eyes on. I thought, rather than The Serpent Sword, that Kin Of Cain, was Matthew’s ‘breakout’ book. The one where the potential first was nailed, realised and showed that he was going to be one of the very, very best Historical Fiction novelists. A Time For Swords, not only shows that there can/will be life outside, or after, Beobrand, but that I was absolutely right in my (personal) evaluation of Kin Of Cain as only being the start. I’m not sure if Matthew wrote A Time For Swords as a ‘suck it and see’ exercise, a punt at a new series, see how it turns out and hopefully the publishers give it the green light. They should, because in Matthew’s hands the story and the format even, have great potential. Let’s face it, if/when Matthew goes ‘back’ to Beobrand, the old war horse has got to die sometime, eh? Beobrand that is. Then what? Staying in the area and having the story of Hunlaf and his adventures in the Viking Age makes a nice continuity for Matthew and, most importantly, for us readers.

You can buy A Time For Swords from The Book Depository

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