5 of 5 stars
Series: A Bernicia Chronicles novella
My version: eBook
Historical Fiction Dark Ages, England
Aria, Head of Zeus
AD 630. Anglo-Saxon Britain. A gripping, action-packed historical tale set in the world of The Bernicia Chronicles. Perfect for fans of Bernard Cornwell.
Winter grips the land in its icy fist. Terror stalks the hills, moors and marshes of Bernicia. Livestock and men have been found ripped asunder, their bones gnawed, flesh gorged upon. People cower in their halls in fear of the monster that prowls the night.
King Edwin sends his champions, Bassus, Octa and band of trusted thegns, to hunt down the beast and to rid his people of this evil.
Bassus leads the warriors into the chill wastes of the northern winter, and they soon question whether they are the hunters or the prey. Death follows them as they head deeper into the ice-rimed marshes, and there is ever only one ending for the mission: a welter of blood that will sow the seeds of a tale that will echo down through the ages.
Without doubt, Kin of Cain is spine-tinglingly, nerve-jangling, read-through-your-fingers superb!
It’s both a Bernicia short-story, and the work of a writer now catapulted into the ranks of the very best the Historical Fiction genre has to offer. If I hadn’t already been 100% convinced of that, I wouldn’t have agreed to take part in the Blog Tour to promote the book, put it like that. It’s clear, that for lovers of Historical Fiction, 7th Century Britannia is the place to be right now, because with writing of this depth and quality, Matthew Harffy is in danger of giving the Dark Ages a good name.
In Dark Ages Bernicia, in what is now the northern part of England, an ancient evil presence seems to be abroad. Stalking the land, killing and dismembering whatever comes its way in the night. The King tasks his warriors with hunting, finding and dealing with this un-named menace.
The book is set in the period before the first book in The Bernicia Chronicles, The Serpent Sword. So, cue a load of background information on characters already familiar to us from the series proper? Cue the feeling that it was a side-spur, a passage that got left out of one or other of the three (so far) Bernicia Chronicles proper books, padded with a hasty start and finish? Nope. Absolutely, no way. It might be short, but it’s bursting with fresh ideas, atmosphere and images.
Kin of Cain is, incredibly for a short story/novella, a multi-layered, multi-faceted work, dealing with folk law, folk-memories, Roman, German, Anglo Saxon, Danish, that created demons for peoples who didn’t fully understand their world. It’s a fear of the unknown that, despite all our modern, 21st Century science and technology, is still inside us all.
I got first, shades of Robert E. Howard, he of Conan The Barbarian fame. He also wrote a lot of other types of stories, amongst others, horror, or rather, terror tales. Steeped in and dripping with doom, gloom, fear of the ancient unknown and menace. That’s what Kin of Cain first suggested to me. The phrase, “Blackness that moved, A shape amid the shadows,” also sprang unbidden to mind. As did Eaters of the Dead, by Michael Crichton. But I’m probably getting ahead of myself here.
What I think you have to think about of, is that these peoples weren’t originally from the area, these lands. They are Anglo Saxons, and we always think of that as who English people are. These peoples may have been troops or mercenaries left behind by the Romans, the mention of their gods and traditions here, make me think that they still have their roots elsewhere, on the continent. They’ve clearly brought along with their gods, their superstitions and their folk-memory.
The King – and their honour – sends the warriors, out into the night, where ordinary people fear to tread, to seek the demon that is plaguing the land and the people. They might be out in the night but as the story progresses, as the characters develop, it seems they are all fighting their own inner demons in one way or another. Perhaps each seeking something else. Octa, is the main character here. He’s the older brother to Beobrand, the main figure of the Bernicia Chronicles books and what it feels like he is seeking, by putting his fear and courage to the test, is a confrontation with the awful memories of his father. Octa knows he has to go out there, find and then confront the fear, or he will never escape the mental chains in which his father has bound. Then there’s the title. Kin of Cain. The Christian Priest has also come to drive the old ‘demon’ gods out. Maybe, by conquering the demon, he can rid them of their pagan beliefs, and they can rid themselves of their past, and start a new legend, a new history the one that we now know as ‘England.’
But we’re back to what is it that can make the biggest, fiercest warriors the land has to offer, quiver and quake, afraid to go out into the night beyond the light of their campfires? It’s something as simple, yet terrifying, as their own imagination, of course. This, Matthew captures brilliantly and perfectly – and he does the same to us. We imagine what it must be. And he makes it grow and grow in our imagination. Fears made physical and deadly. Whispers that can kill. Nothing they can lay their hands on. In the dark corners of their own minds, the dark corners of their own people’s past – the demon, is all their fears made real. That image of the imagination making the beast ten times taller, ten times bigger, that look at how the folk-imagination works, imagination made real, also reminded me of Robert Holdstock‘s Mythago Wood books. Kin of Cain is where the legends and memories featured in Mythago Wood, began. What Matthew has understood, is what makes us frightened, is not seeing and not knowing. Not ever seeing more than a glimpse, at the edges of vision, at the edges of the campfire light, of what frightens you. That’s why horror films, like Alien, work so well. You never see more than a glimpse of the monster only ever what it leaves behind.
As I hope I’ve suggested, Kin of Cain is a real idea bomb for me. One to be savoured and read late at night, by candle-light, in an abandoned farmhouse, out on the moors…
Related reviews on Speesh Reads: