I first encountered Matthew Harffy as we were both wandering around cyberspace, tracking down interesting bits of information about 7th century Northumbria. As it turns out, we were both writing books about this time and place, although in different genres. Matthew’s book is strictly historical, while mine is historical fantasy.
Matthew is a little ahead of me in the journey to publication; his book, The Serpent Sword (Bernicia Chronicles, Book One) was self-published in May of this year, and it is garnering some impressive reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. I was eager to read it, but a very busy summer got the best of me and I finally finished it last month.
The Serpent Sword is the story of Beobrand, a young man from Cantware (modern-day Kent, in the south of England) who is propelled from his everyday life as a farmer by his mother’s death from the plague and the mysterious death of his abusive father. Beobrand is left alone, and heads north to join his brother, the warrior Octa, who is serving in the king’s war band in the Bernician fortress of Bebbanburg.
But life is never that simple, especially in this violent and unstable time. The year is 633 AD, and Edwin is on Bernicia’s throne, but forces are gathering against him, namely Penda of Mercia and Cadwallon of Gwynedd, a kingdom of northern Wales. Beobrand quickly discovers that his brother has been murdered, and he sets out on a journey to find his brother’s killer and bring him to justice. Along the way we see Beobrand evolve from callow youth to seasoned warrior, and by the time he finally meets his brother’s murderer, we are thoroughly caught up in his search for justice.
This is violent book, reflecting the times, so be warned. Harffy does a good job of letting us know what it would have been like to be a warrior in the sheildwall. We are right there with Beobrand as he fights for his life and for the glory of his king. We feel his fear and the excitement of battle, and see the blood fly. Not for the faint of heart!
Harffy is a good writer, and the story moves along smoothly for the most part, although I will admit to struggling a bit with the “head-hopping” from one character’s point of view to another within the same scene that happens here and there in the book. It can be a bit distracting at times. But this is Harffy’s debut novel, and I know he will only improve. For the most part the writing is skillfully executed, with just enough details to fill in the picture for us of the time and place, but not so much that we get bogged down, which can be a danger for historical novelists.
Harffy has obviously done careful research on the setting. Northumbria in the 7th century is presented with skill, and we get a realistic portrayal of what life would have been like in this time and place. Beobrand is a sympathetic character, with weaknesses that he must overcome along the way to his final goal. I liked the way his journey is portrayed; he doesn’t always make the right choices, but they are the best choices he can make at the time considering the circumstances, and he is left to wrestle with the consequences of some of those choices.
Along the way he makes some friends and enemies, and is even given a chance at love. But it all must wait until he avenges his brother’s death. The climax of the book is exciting and satisfying, although we are certainly left wanting to know more of Beobrand’s story.
Which is a good thing, as Harffy is currently working on Book Two of the Bernicia Chronicles, The Cross and the Curse, due sometime next year!
Bottom line: The Serpent Sword is exciting, gritty, and realistic, with an engaging main character. Fans of Bernard Cornwall would like this one!