The Serpent Sword by Matthew Harffy

Much as I enjoy reading historical fiction set in other countries, it’s also nice to have the opportunity to learn about the history of my own little corner of the world. This novel by Matthew Harffy, the first of a series, is set in the same time and place as Edoardo Albert’s Northumbrian Thrones trilogy, but as soon as I started to read The Serpent Sword I could tell it was going to be a very different type of book – not necessarily better or worse; just different.

The Serpent Sword opens in the year 633, when Britain is still made up of a collection of warring kingdoms. It begins with murder – the murder of Octa, a favoured warrior of King Edwin, and his lover, a woman called Elda. We don’t know the killer’s identity, but we see him lurking in the shadows of the fortress of Bebbanburg and we learn that there are two motives for what he is about to do. The first is that he has been rejected by Elda, who has chosen Octa instead, and the second, he is unhappy that Edwin has gifted the magnificent sword known as Hrunting to Octa rather than himself.

It was a sword fit for a king. The blades forged from twisted rods of iron. The metal shone with the pattern of rippling water, or the slick skin of a snake. The hilt was inlaid with fine bone and intricate carvings. All who had seen the weapon coveted it.

Too late to be of assistance, Octa’s younger brother Beobrand arrives from Cantware in the south, keen to join the service of a great lord, only to be met with the devastating news of Octa’s death. On a happier note, despite Beobrand’s lack of experience, he impresses Edwin enough to be given a place in the king’s army for his upcoming battle against Penda of Mercia and the Waelisc king, Cadwallon of Gwynedd. However, the battle ends in disaster for Edwin and he and many of his men are killed.

Beobrand, one of the few survivors, is taken to a nearby monastery to recover and this proves to be another turning point in his life. Having formed some new but important friendships at the monastery, he sets off again in search of another lord to serve. He will learn some important lessons on his journey as he grows and develops as a person, acquires new skills and has the chance to fall in love – but he never loses sight of his mission to take revenge upon the man who killed Octa and recover his brother’s sword.

The Serpent Sword is a well-researched work of historical fiction and those readers who like their novels fast-paced and action-packed with plenty of scenes involving battles, weapons and fighting will find a lot to enjoy here. Matthew Harffy’s books have been receiving excellent reviews, many drawing comparisons with Bernard Cornwell, which is clearly high praise if that’s where your tastes lie. However, although I can understand the appeal of this book, the overall feel and style of Edoardo Albert’s novels works better for me with their fantasy-like atmosphere and deeper exploration of the political and religious changes taking place during that period.

Still, it was good to have the opportunity to add to my limited knowledge of Northumbrian history. The focus of Harffy’s novel (and the series, the Bernicia Chronicles) is on the history of Bernicia, the northern half of Northumbria, rather than the southern part, Deira. Bebbanburg with its coastal fort, for example, is modern-day Bamburgh, where an impressive castle still stands, and Hadrian’s Wall, the famous wall built by the Romans, is also referenced, although the characters in the book don’t seem to have a name for it. In some ways, the region described in the book seems almost like a completely different world from the area I know today, but in others it’s strangely familiar.

Despite not really loving The Serpent Sword, I did still find it an interesting read, touching on many different aspects of 7th century life. It is a satisfying novel in itself, but it also feels like the first book in a series, following our hero Beobrand’s transformation from an inexperienced young man to a brave warrior skilled with sword and shield. On reaching the end, there’s the sense that there are many more adventures to come for Beobrand – and yes, there are now another four books that make up the Bernicia Chronicles. Will I be reading them? At the moment I’m not sure, but I could possibly be tempted.

I do have a copy of Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom which I will get to eventually, although I want to wait a while as I think it could be quite similar to this book – and I suspect it may not be entirely to my taste either. I’m more intrigued by the sound of Cornwell’s new Elizabethan novel, Fools and Mortals, coming later this year.

Thanks to the publisher Head of Zeus for providing a review copy of this book via NetGalley.

Oswald: Return of the King by Edoardo Albert

Oswald One of my favourite reads from the first half of this year was Edwin: High King of Britain, the first in Edoardo Albert’s Northumbrian Thrones trilogy which tells the stories of three seventh century kings. On a visit to the library a few weeks ago I was pleased to find a copy of the second book, Oswald: Return of the King – and I was delighted to discover that it was just as good as the first.

It’s not necessary to have read Edwin: High King of Britain before starting this book – the key events of the previous book are given in a summary at the beginning of this one – but those of you who did read Edwin may remember Oswald as the young boy who fled into exile with his family after his father, Æthelfrith, King of Northumbria, was killed in battle.

During the years of Edwin’s reign, Oswald remains in the northern kingdom of Dal Riata, living amongst the monks on the island of Iona, where he is converted to Christianity. When news of Edwin’s death reaches the island, Oswald is reluctant to take action; he has no real desire to claim the throne for himself and would prefer to stay on Iona and enter the monastery. Abbot Ségéne, however, has other ideas – he wants Oswald to become king so that he can spread the new religion to his people – and a sequence of events follows which will leave Oswald with little choice other than to return to Northumbria and regain his father’s throne.

Oswald’s story is as exciting and engrossing as Edwin’s was. If the title, Return of the King, has made you think of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, that’s not a coincidence: Tolkien is thought to have taken the historical Oswald as the inspiration for his fictional character, Aragorn. Edoardo Albert lists Tolkien as a favourite author and there is a definite influence here, though it would be difficult to say how much. This tale of treachery and betrayal, stolen thrones and warring kingdoms does sometimes feel like fantasy – but of course, it isn’t; Oswald was a real person and Albert’s novel is based on historical fact (except where some imagination was clearly needed to fill in the gaps).

Oswald himself is a fascinating character and I thought his internal struggle between his desire to become a monk and his duty to become king was very well written. I also loved the portrayal of his relationship with his younger brother, Oswiu, who is going to be the subject of the third book in the trilogy. The brothers have very different temperaments, and while the loyalty and love they have for each other is plain to see, there’s also a tension which is always there below the surface.

Other characters include friends such as the monk, Aidan, who brings Christianity to the island of Lindisfarne, and enemies such as Cadwallon, King of Gwynedd, and Penda, King of Mercia – and I was pleased to see the return of Coifi, the pagan priest whom we first met in Edwin: High King of Britain, now a lost and lonely character having had his faith in the old gods shaken. I should also mention Oswald’s wonderful pet raven, Bran, who seems to have a personality all of his own (I wasn’t aware until after finishing the book that there are stories associating the real Oswald with a raven).

Before reading this book I had very little knowledge of Oswald or this period of history, so I found it a very informative novel as well as an entertaining one. Albert includes a lot of useful additional material: there’s a map showing the various kingdoms that made up Britain in the year 635, a character list, a glossary of unfamiliar words and a pronunciation guide – which was very helpful as I would otherwise have had no idea how to pronounce a name like Rhieienmelth!

I’m now looking forward to the third book in the trilogy – and while I await its publication I think I would like to read The King in the North by Max Adams for a non-fiction view of Oswald.

Edwin: High King of Britain by Edoardo Albert

Edwin High King of Britain He attempted to unite the warring tribes of Britain under one crown. He converted to Christianity in 627 and many others followed his example. After his death he became a saint. These are some of the achievements of Edwin, the 7th century King of Northumbria, but how many of you, without having read the title of this post, would have known who I was talking about? I always think it’s a shame that so much is written about some historical figures and so little about others, but in this, the first of the Northumbrian Thrones trilogy, Edoardo Albert gives Edwin the attention he deserves.

Edwin: High King of Britain is a fictional account of Edwin’s life. The story begins with Edwin in exile at the court of King Rædwald of East Anglia and follows him as he attempts to regain the throne of Northumbria. With his kingdom secure again, Edwin goes on to conquer several of his neighbouring kingdoms, believing that strength lies in unity. To secure an alliance in the south of the country, he marries Æthelburh, daughter of the King of Kent, but when his new bride heads north accompanied by her two Christian priests, Paulinus and James, Edwin has an important decision to make both for himself and for his people.

This is a fascinating novel and I feel that I’ve learned a lot from it, but it’s also a gripping, entertaining story. My description above might make it sound a bit dry, but it’s really not dry at all. In the first chapter alone, while seeking refuge at King Rædwald’s court, Edwin learns that his Northumbrian rival Æthelfrith has bribed Rædwald to assassinate him, and later that same day he has a moonlight encounter with a mysterious stranger who predicts that he will become a great and powerful king.

In the pages that follow there are battles and duels, feasts and feuds, and lots of political intrigue; there’s always something interesting happening or something new to learn and I was never bored. One very important thread that runs throughout the novel involves the coming of Christianity to Northumbria and the choice Edwin and his people are forced to make between the old pagan gods and the Christian God. This religious conflict is portrayed particularly well through the characters of Paulinus, the Italian missionary, and Coifi, Edwin’s chief pagan priest.

Writing a novel set so far into the distant past means that there is obviously a limit as to how much information is available, but Albert does seem to stick to the known facts as far as possible; his author’s note at the end explains where it was necessary to change things. The main sources he acknowledges are the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Ecclesiastical History of the English People by the Venerable Bede. He also includes some riddles and poetry from the Exeter Book (one of the few remaining works of Anglo-Saxon literature), which I thought was a nice touch.

I have read about this time period only once before, in Nicola Griffith’s beautifully written Hild, but while Hild gives us a female perspective, this is more of a male-dominated story so the two books complement each other very well. It was nice to be able to begin this book with some familiarity with the period, however slight, but I didn’t really need it because the author makes Edwin’s story easy enough to follow even if you have no previous knowledge at all. He also provides a list of characters and a glossary at the front of the book – and a map, which is very useful if you’re not sure where the various kingdoms that make up 7th century Britain are located.

Edwin: High King of Britain is one of the most enjoyable historical fiction novels I’ve read so far this year. I’m now looking forward to reading the sequel, Oswald: Return of the King.