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.

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Gildenford by Valerie Anand

Gildenford In 1036 the exiled Alfred Atheling, son of the late King Ethelred and his wife, Emma of Normandy, is invited to return to England to visit his mother. While lodging with Godwin, Earl of Wessex, in the town of Gildenford (now known as Guildford), Alfred and his men are betrayed and captured on the orders of King Harold Harefoot. The Atheling dies after being brutally tortured and blinded.

Several years later, Alfred’s brother, Edward the Confessor, succeeds to the throne of England but the truth of what happened in Gildenford remains shrouded in mystery. Was Harefoot acting alone or with Godwin’s help? Worse still, was it a plot of Emma’s to have her own son murdered? Edward can’t be sure, but one man thinks he knows. His name is Brand Woodcutter, a servant of Godwin’s who has been part of the Earl’s household for many years and is considered to be a friend of the family. Brand’s battle with his conscience as he tries to decide what to do with his knowledge of Gildenford is at the heart of this novel as we move through some of the key events leading up to the Norman Conquest of 1066.

I’ve been reading a lot of fiction set in this period recently and more than one person has recommended Valerie Anand’s Norman trilogy to me. I’m glad they did because I really enjoyed it – this is definitely my type of book! It does exactly what a good historical novel should do…brings a bygone age back to life, entertains as well as educating, and reminds us that the people who lived in those distant times were human beings like ourselves, not just names we might have seen in a school textbook.

Most of the characters in Gildenford are real historical figures and they are all so well-drawn and convincing that at first I wasn’t sure it was really necessary to incorporate fictional characters such as Brand into the story as well. I did soon warm to Brand, however, and enjoyed the scenes written from his perspective as he observes the actions of others, struggles with conflicting loyalties and agonises over some very difficult decisions. I was impressed by the way Anand manages to weave his personal storyline together with the historical facts, particularly the abduction of the Abbess of Leominster and the uprising in Dover during the visit of Count Eustace of Bologne.

Gildenford was published in 1977 and like most of Valerie Anand’s books is currently out of print. I managed to obtain an ebook version from Open Library but unfortunately they don’t have the second one, The Norman Pretender. Judging from the prices being asked for used copies they must be quite rare, but I’ll watch out for a reasonably priced one and hopefully it won’t be too long before I can continue with the series.

Godwine Kingmaker by Mercedes Rochelle

Godwine Kingmaker Earlier this year I read Mercedes Rochelle’s Heir to a Prophecy, a novel set in the 11th century and inspired by Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Her second book, Godwine Kingmaker: Part One of The Last Great Saxon Earls, is also set in Anglo-Saxon England – in the years leading up to the Norman Conquest – and tells the story of Godwine, Earl of Wessex.

Godwine, son of Wulfnoth, is only eighteen when he meets a Danish warrior in the woods and offers his assistance. This chance meeting will change the course of Godwine’s life, because the man he has befriended is Ulf, brother-in-law of Canute, King of Denmark. When Canute takes the throne of England after the death of Edmund Ironside in 1016, Godwine is by his side offering advice and support. During the years that follow he rises to become Earl of Wessex, one of the most powerful men in the kingdom, but Godwine’s good fortune will not last forever…

Godwine Kingmaker provides a fascinating portrayal of one of the last and greatest Saxon Earls. I have come across Godwine once or twice before in other novels set during this time period, but have never read about his life in so much depth. As the father of Harold, the future King of England, his historical significance is obvious, but he was also a very important nobleman in his own right. I thought he was a great character and I enjoyed following his story from his humble beginnings to the height of his power and influence.

One aspect of the story I found particularly interesting – and also quite frustrating – is the relationship between Godwine and Ulf’s sister, Gytha. Gytha very reluctantly becomes Godwine’s wife and for a long time after the marriage she persists in denying her feelings for him, even to herself. Although her behaviour annoyed me at times, I thought it was good that this storyline was not resolved too quickly and continued to have implications for several of the characters later in the book.

Godwine is an ambitious man but he is also a man who cares about his family and throughout the novel we see him working to ensure a safe and secure future for his children, even while his fortunes rise and fall as three more kings follow Canute. Despite Godwine’s best efforts, his eldest son, Swegn, stumbles from one disaster to another, but it is his second son, Harold, who will carry the family’s legacy forward.

Mercedes Rochelle is now working on the sequel to this book, The Sons of Godwine, which will tell the story of Harold Godwineson and his brothers. I’m looking forward to reading it!

Thanks to the author for providing a copy of Godwine Kingmaker for review.

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.

River of Destiny by Barbara Erskine

This is the first Barbara Erskine novel I’ve read. Knowing how popular she is and that I usually enjoy the type of books she writes – books that combine history and the supernatural – I’ve been meaning to try one for a long time but have never actually got around to it until now.

River of Destiny is set in three different time periods, one contemporary and two historical. The contemporary story follows Zoe and Ken Lloyd, who have moved away from London and bought a converted barn in Suffolk near the River Deben where Ken can indulge in his hobby, sailing. Zoe is not very happy with the move as she does not share Ken’s passion for boats and has had to leave behind a job she enjoyed. To make things worse, she is starting to sense ghostly presences in and around their new home. Gradually Zoe begins to learn that some of these paranormal occurrences could be echoes of The Old Barn’s eventful past.

In the novel’s two historical storylines we learn more about the events of the past which are haunting Zoe in the present day. The first of these is set in the Victorian period and tells the story of Dan, a blacksmith who finds himself a target of the scheming Lady Emily Crosby. Dan’s involvement with Emily will have tragic consequences. The third storyline is set in Anglo-Saxon England in the year 865 where we meet another smith, Eric, and his wife Edith. Amid the threat of a Viking invasion, Eric has been asked to forge a special sword for his lord, which he calls Destiny Maker – but it seems that the sword will not be given the chance to fulfil its destiny.

These three stories all take place in the same area of Suffolk, although in different periods, and are linked by sightings of a ghostly Viking ship sailing up the River Deben through a thick mist. Of the three storylines the one I found the most compelling was the contemporary one, which I thought had the most interesting group of characters: the mysterious Leo who lives alone in The Old Forge, Rosemary Formby who is on a mission to prove that walkers should have the right to cross a farmer’s field, and twelve year-old Jade whose family own one of the other barn conversions, The Summer Barn, and who is determined to cause trouble for Zoe and Leo. It surprised me that the present day story was my favourite, as with my love of historical fiction I usually prefer the historical parts of multiple time-frame novels!

I enjoyed the first few chapters of the book and was anticipating a great read, but as I got further into the story I started to lose interest. I think the problem was that I just didn’t like the way the novel was structured. The time shifts were a bit too frequent and abrupt for me and I also thought the story was told using too many different perspectives. Sometimes each section would only be two or three pages long – or even less – which meant I kept being pulled out of the flow of the story just as I was starting to get interested in it. I’m sure I would have enjoyed this book a lot more if I’d been able to get fully immersed in one storyline and one set of characters before moving on to the next.

So, I was left with mixed feelings about River of Destiny and I’m not sure if I really want to read any of Barbara Erskine’s other novels. If you’re a fan maybe you can convince me to give her another chance?