Review: Blood and Blade – Matthew Harffy

blood-and-blade-matthew-harffy5 of 5 stars

Series:
The Bernicia Chronicles 3

My version:
eBook
Historical Fiction Dark AgesEngland
Aria Books
2016
Supplied by the author, don’cha know!

635AD. Anglo-Saxon Britain.

Oswald is now King of Northumbria. However, his plans for further alliances and conquests are quickly thrown into disarray when his wedding to a princess of Wessex is interrupted by news of a Pictish uprising.

Rushing north, Oswald leaves Beobrand to escort the young queen to her new home. Their path is fraught with danger and uncertainty, Beobrand must try to unravel secrets and lies if they are to survive.

Meanwhile, old enemies are closing in, seeking brutal revenge. Beobrand will give his blood and blade in service to his king, but will that be enough to avert disaster and save his kith and kin from the evil forces that surround them?

I am so, so pleased that Matthew has trusted me with early copies of his (three) books (so far) to review. And I am especially pleased to report back from the centre of the Blood and Blade shield-wall, that the third book is his best (so far). That it is was well worth my time and will be well worth your time and money. Money and time, as you’d have to buy it first…OK, you get the picture.

The book, from the first page, the first paragraph even, had me gripped, positively transported back the 1400-odd years, in a thoroughly wonderful explosion of quality writing and gripping story telling. I thought there was a magical, nostalgic feel to the book, to the writing, that made it extraordinarily readable. What I got was not just an affinity, but a totalunderstanding and love for the period that made the story feel effortless, just as if you or I were describing what happened during our day today, for instance. His words paint a much clearer picture of the characters and the period and therefore their motives, than previously. It’s easy to read, easy to place what is happening and who is doing it, without having it cut out of cardboard, as the Danes say. The reader being treated like an adult, I like that in an author.

Blood and Blade is the logical progression from the first two books, and it is much, much more. It is the natural combination of all Matthew has gone through and learnt writing the first two. I’m not saying culmination, as it looks as though, this learning curve continued, he will only get better and better. Blood and Blade is the distillation of all that is good with the first two and, I think, Matthew has really found his stride with this one. It must have been such a good feeling while writing the book – like the first was “I want to write HF.” Number two “I think I can write HF.” This is both “I can write HF,” but also “Hey! I can write!” I think Matthew must have felt it underway. There is an incredible feeling of ‘rightness’ about the book and a wonderful anticipation that it’s only going to get better with subsequent books. Personally, I think it must have been a brave move for a new writer to choose the period after the Romans, but before the Vikings, in which to set their novels. Especially given that Vikings are dish of the day right now and there are several very good authors ‘owning’ that field at the moment. And Robert Low. The temptation, I’m thinking, must have been to think “Vikings sell!” and dive in. When really, (yet) another Viking book would be filling what we professionals call ‘a much-needed gap in the market.’ You know it. Choosing this period though, could still have been something of a minefield: Invaders that are called something similar to ‘Saxons,’ who later, when we think ‘Robin Hood,’ are actually ‘us.’ Are us now, as we’re Anglo Saxons, aren’t we? So how come we’re the foreigners, and we’re calling those who are already here, the ‘foreigners‘? ‘And, why can’t they spell ‘Odin’ right? Why are all their gods not quite Vikings gods?!’ Unfortunately, as they say on imbeciles’ Facebook status updates, ‘97% of people won’t…’ think about where the ideas came from and how they branched off and how they subsequently came together again. They’ll just think ‘this ain’t the bloody Vikings! What’s going on?’ However, if you’re looking for somewhere to really flex your writing wings, as Matthew is proving beyond doubt, the 6/700s is surely the place to be. Because it’s not the Romans, it’s not the Vikings and it’s not 100% sure what exactly happened in that period. New ideas are evolving all the time, new finds coming to light, and the archaeology is re-writing the history all the time. A very rich period in which to flourish. Clearly a wise decision then, and as Matthew is well on the way to owning this period, and a very lucky decision for us, the discerning Historical Fiction reader.

The character of Beobrand, the ‘main’ character, has matured just nicely. He’s more flesh and blood, more rounded and well on the way to becoming a really solid stand-out hero for the period. Matthew does need to get Beobrand away from his depressed hyena act though. And the standard Hist Fic, ‘nothing says Hist Fic more than…’ touchstone, of ‘battle calm,’ ‘embracing his anger/rage’ all that nonsense, which has only ever appeared in other Hist Fic novels, all of them – so it must be right! And the bad weather, but that’s a rant for another time… However! This time around, Beobrand aside I’ve particularly enjoyed Matthew’s handling of the development of his ‘minor’ characters, some we knew before, some we meet for the first time. Minor characters can be tricky buggers, when you’ve got an obvious main character you really want to work on and who needs to always be the source of both problems and solutions. They are either foils, back-up, or the guy in the red shirt beamed down with the main characters in Star Trek. You’ve got to have them, but they can’t be too interesting, or they begin to make us think the main man really isn’t up to it. And giving Picts an arse-kicking always goes down well with me, no matter which period a book is set.

A series that is both passionate for the period and the characters and magnetically interesting because of it, full of vivid, clear, exciting writing and, above all, storytelling.  I don’t know what he’s done since starting writing these books, but I do hope he keeps on doing it. Surely, a one word acknowledgement of his talent on the cover can be prised out of Bernard Cornwell sometime soon. And it won’t be “Who?”

You can buy Blood and Blade at Amazon

I’m also on Goodreads

Related reviews on Speesh Reads:

The Serpent SwordThe Cross and The Curse

Review: Fire & Steel – C. R. May

Fire & Steel (large)6 out of 5 gods

Series: King’s Bane 1

My version:
eBook
Historical Fiction The Dark Ages
Self Published
2016
Sent by author

523 A.D. Arthur is dead.

As Britannia burns a small tribe clings to its colony of Anglia.

Across the German Sea powerful enemies covet Engeln itself.

But the English are not easily cowed.

As Spear-Danes threaten the homeland a hero returns, leading the fightback with ferocity and guile…

There are some book covers that you see and think I just got to read me some of that! For me, this is one of them. However, the real test, is can Fire & Steel deliver on the undoubted high promise of its cover? Oh yes, it can. And then some.

Fire & Steel is an absolutely magnificent, thrilling, poignant, invigorating and inspiring book. The first thing you note, is the quality of the writing. Rich and rewarding, clear and engaging, full of nuance and an eye for the telling detail, whether it be in the landscape, actions, or conversation. It is books of this calibre that will elevate Historical Fiction up to the literary level it deserves to be at. My first encounter with C. R. May, but not the last, that I can promise you.

First, a word of warning: It will pay you to study the map at the front a while before you start the reading. Or have it bookmarked for quick reference. Might even be an idea to print it out to refer to now and again. Why? Well, that’s because while the book is based on real history, from a real historical period, he has kept/used the original place names. And ‘original place names’ means, as far as I can grasp, the names as they were known to the people of the areas involved in his story, at the time. Allowing for the changes in language and alphabet, etc, of course. So, for example, thanks to having lived myself in Denmark for close on 12 years now(!), I had to get the map out a couple of times to make sure when I read Harrow, I thought ‘Fyn’ (and it’s not pronounced anything like how you’ve just ‘heard’ it in your head). It is sometimes a little confusing and I wondered (mostly to myself) if he hadn’t made a mistake in doing it like this. However, further thought revealed, no, it isn’t a mistake. Why? Because the places and their names we know them by now, didn’t exist in the form we now know them, even from the history books, at the time he is writing of. So, doing it this way, is absolutely spot on and even a genius stroke, once you get used to it. I’m guessing that what he’s saying, by calling them ‘English’ and – while we’re in their original homeland of what is now southern Denmark, northern Germany – mentioning similar-sounding place names and other words, is, that these people brought much of what is seen as English culture, over to what was at the time Britannia, with them.

The story concerns, as I say, the people of Engeln, their king and the hero of this book, Eofer King’s Bane (thanks to him killing a king up Sweden way). He has been over in Britannia, travelling around Britannia, looking at where they are thinking of moving their people to, the east, what is now East Anglia (think about it). However, it won’t be as easy as just packing up and moving lock stock and floating barrel over the North Sea, to a warm welcome from the inhabitants. There are those who are already resident in Britannia who would dispute, who are disputing, the English’s right to be there. However, that would seem to be for a future story, as this one moves back with Eofer to Engeln and concerns itself with their dispute with the Jutes and, especially, the Danes. The English can see which way the wind is blowing in the future and are taking a pragmatic decision to move over, however, there are certain matters that need sorting with the Danes before they can think about moving their peoples out of harm’s way.

As I said above, this is Historical Fiction of the very highest standard – an absolute all-enveloping pleasure to read and learn from. The period in which it is set can be a little tricky at first, I think. I’m guessing that most people who read books of this genre, will be reasonably well up on the Vikings, from the tv series, if nothing else. So, as with the other books I’ve read recently set in this period and concerning these peoples (Wulfsuna by E. S. Moxon and the first two in The Bernicia Chronicles by Matthew Harffy), talk of the gods, Woden, Thunor, the Allfather, spirits and heroes that you thought were the Vikings’ exclusive property, can cause some head-scratching. Until…you realise, what CRM, ESM and MH are saying and showing very well, is that this is, these are the peoples, who brought believe in those gods and spirits and heroes both to Scandinavia and Britain. To develop the learning-curve thought, that in a way was how it was with reading this book. A little like my confused historical mist clearing and the story coming through. The added tantalising confusion for me, in the early stages at least, was the fact that Fire & Steel mostly takes place on continental Europe, rather than in Britain, as were Wulfsuna and The Serpent Sword.

I cannot overstate how wonderful Fire & Steel is, or what an indecently good pleasure it was to read. Quite possibly the most enjoyment you can have with your clothes on. If he says he’s invented time-travel and been back to 500-odd, I for one, will believe him.

What else can I say?

It’s going to be a long time before I read another book set in a similar era and not picture the landscape and characters and world C. R. May has created here. There are going to be a lot more well-known Historical Fiction authors taking a look at this book and be wishing they’d written it. And if they don’t, they should do. This is a book the likes of friends Cornwall, Kristian and Low, would give their eye-teeth to have written. I can not praise this book highly enough, and I cannot imagine I will read a better written, more involving, more inspiring, more everything, Historical Fiction book this year. These many years, probably. Not until the next in the series comes out maybe? Need to go lie down now. Do what you can or must to get hold of this book, you won’t regret it.

Buy Fire & Steel at Amazon (only ’cause I can’t find it elsewhere)

Related reviews:

WulfsunaThe Serpent SwordThe Pagan LordOdin's WolvesThe Prow Beast

 

 

 

 

Me, on Goodreads

Review: The Cross and the Curse by Matthew Harffy

The Cross and the Curse

out of 5 stars

My version:
eBook
Historical Fiction
Dark Ages Britain
Self Published
2015
Pre-publication copy, don’t you know

The Cross and the Curse, is the second volume of The Bernicia Chronicles

BRITAIN 634 A.D.
Before The Battle of Hastings.
Before Alfred fought the Danes.
Even before England.

Warlords battled across Britain to become the first King of the English.

When Beobrand’s valour brings about a stunning victory against the native Waelisc, the King of Northumbria rewards him with riches and land. Beobrand wishes for nothing more than to settle on his new estate with his bride. But he soon finds himself beset with enemies old and new. He even fears that the power of a curse has him in its grip, as he begins to lose all he holds dear.

With treachery and death surrounding him, Beobrand confronts his foes with cold iron and bitter fury. On his quest for revenge and redemption, he grudgingly accepts the mantle of lord, leading his men into the darkest of nights and the bloodiest of battles.

The Cross and the Curse is the second novel of the Bernicia Chronicles.

Where the Dark Ages come to glorious light and life.

Beobrand has returned to Bernicia and Bebbanburg from the first book, The Serpent Sword. As has Oswald, from exile, though he is now calling himself King. Cadwallon King of Gwynedd and the Welsh are soon dealt with and Beobrand’s star is on the rise. As a warrior, he is awesome, as a man, he is head over heels in love. Sunniva has got through his defences in a way no enemy ever could. Beobrand is made a Lord, with land and a retinue and everything should be set fair for a nice quiet existence up north of the great wall (interestingly, Matthew has them knowing nothing of the Romans who built the wall, the roads or the buildings they see around them), in the harshly beautiful Northumbrian countryside. However…call it Wyrd, call it fate, call it bad luck, call it just being called Beobrand – his life doesn’t turn out this way. Bad luck doesn’t so much follow him around, as get there a couple of days before him. However, bad news for Beobrand, is good news for us readers.

If you liked the first one, The Serpent Sword, you’re going to love this one. This is so much better, it hurts. It couldn’t exist without having already gone through the first one, but this is where the real stuff starts. In my humble opinion anyway.

I can’t hide that I did have a couple of misgivings about the first one. However, I seem to have been alone in that, as the people who matter – other people – certainly liked it well enough. The reviews I’ve seen, have ranged from positive, to ecstatic. And they’re from people who don’t even know Matthew! Or are his Mum and Dad! The first was good. This is better. It doesn’t bear thinking about the third one…

How can I put it? Right from the opening paragraphs, it felt immediately that there were more layers to the characters’… erm, characters. Minor characters are better drawn. More colour. More everything you want there to be more of in your Historical Fiction. I’d put money on large sections of this being written in a rush of enthusiasm and adrenalin. I read it, especially from half way on, that way anyway. I won’t say I had my jaw on the floor at the whole way through like I did for Greg Iles’ epic The Bone Tree, but, you better have something soft on your floor just in case, a couple of times, that’s for sure.

Beobrand, I wasn’t sure of in the first one, or for the first third of this one. However, when I think back, I can see that Matthew actually develops his character very well indeed throughout the book. As the story progresses, Beobrand grows into being what Matthew wanted of Beobrand. He’s not the same at the end, as he is at the start. Realising that, made me even more sure I would be right about giving it five stars. There are still some unnecessary and given the leap this one has made in quality, unworthy standard Historical Fiction cliched short cuts. They “explore each other’s bodies,” she “crushes herself to his muscular form,” she “kissed him deeply.” “Perhaps it is my wyrd to see all those I care for die.” You know them. Almost like nervous Hist Fic ticks, or identity cards to the Hist Fic Novel Club. Matthew is clearly better than that. He’s developing his own style and he has made the Dark Ages his own with this book, he doesn’t need those sort of things holding him back. Not when he can do this: “But all the while the women’s eyes held a distant look. Would their men come back? Would they soon be sewing a shroud while others feasted on the food and drink they now prepared?” I’ll stick my house on that being exactly how it was. Absolutely, undeniably superb. I could sometimes wish Beobrand was sometimes a bit more decisive, a bit more ‘fuck this for a game of soldiers, let’s go!’ But then, that’s why we’ve got Acennan and his “it’s only a bird” eh? Actually, while Acennan was reasonably prominent in the later stages of TC&TC, I’d absolutely not be against him taking a larger role in future books.

The quality of the writing is also improved over book one. It’s a muscular style, no frills, though this is more mature and much less formulaic. There. Are. Still too. Many short. Sentences. Where a few ands and linking words, wouldn’t go amiss. It’s not a Ladybird book (even one of the new ones). But Matthew’s getting it to where it should be.

Whilst it and Historical Fiction set in this period – and for the next 500 years or so – in general could do with removing the constant, almost mind-numbing religious stuff, just some times, I liked the undertone of most of this book. The feet-on-the-ground, concentrating on this life not the next, or getting ready for the next, that often stilts books of this ilk. I‘ve mentioned it before, so it’s not new. He’s not anti-religion, just the characters seem more realistic about what is important to them at this time, they seem more practical. This is often voiced by (my new friend) Acennan, but this is about Beobrand; “He was not sure of the power of the Christ, but he believed in this plan.” In general, the feeling is that the people, the Anglo-Saxons, precursors of Vikings (having that in place will help you understand the similarity of a lot of things to those Viking novels you’ve read), believed in gods. Lots of them. When they don’t know what happened around them, or why – it must be the will of the gods, or magic. Or both. Even the Romans’ works are ‘magic’ here (see Arthus C Clarke on this point). Think thunder (there’s a lot of thunder here). We know it’s ‘the sound caused by lightning, the sudden increase in pressure and temperature from lightning produces rapid expansion of the air surrounding and within a bolt of lightning,’ so we’re ok with that. The person in the field, in AD634, hadn’t a clue. So, it was just as logical to them, that it was a mighty god throwing his hammer around in anger, as variants in atmospheric pressure is to us. It comes down to, I think, mastering the trick of not writing about Dark Ages Britain, thinking like a 21st Century Briton. Matthew achieves this sympathy for the characters of this era excellently. Another interesting point I thought he was making – as this story is set in the period where Christianity was still the new kid on the block – that the average Anglo-Saxon pagans in the field, had no real animosity towards the new Christianity and new god. That they would have happily allowed him/them to live alongside their gods. The Christians were the insatiable ones, those who couldn’t do unto others as they would be done unto. As now. The old gods are always more practical, more useful. From tales like this, you can see why they came about.

There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind, that The Cross and the Curse is Matthew’s step up to the big league. Soon, when you tell people you like reading Cornwell, Kristian, Donald and co, you’ll be adding Harffy and they’ll nod knowingly, either approving of your good taste, or making a note to search out a Harffy or two. I gave the first one 4 stars, this one is better – more consistently better – ergo, 5 stars. For what it is now and for what the series will become in the future.

Related review: The Serpent Sword

Buy The Cross and the Curse at Amazon

Me, on Goodreads

Review: The Scarlet Thief by Paul Fraser Collard

The Scarlet ThiefNo doubts at all:
5 out of 5 Stars

My version:
Paperback
Historical Fiction, 19th Century.
Headline Publishing
2013
Bought From The Book Depository

1854. The banks of the Alma River, Crimean Peninsula. The Redcoats stagger to a bloody halt. The men of the King’s Royal Fusileers are in terrible trouble, ducking and twisting as the storm of shot, she’ll and bullet tears through their ranks.

Jack Lark has to act immediately and decisively. His life and the success of the campaign depend on it. But does he have the mettle , the officer qualities that are the life blood of the British Army? From a poor background Lark has stolen a rank and position far above his own and now he faces the ultimate test.

I think about the only time I willingly put The Scarlet Thief down – was to go order the next one. It’s that good.

The 19th Century is not a period of history I know a right lot about. Make that nothing. However, now I’ve found Paul Fraser Collard and Jack Lark, I think all that’s about to change. Lark is a character, an attitude, a book and a period that stays long after I’ve turned the last page. PFC writes him with energy, style and enthusiasm for the whole that really is infectious. You care for the character immediately. You understand him and his actions and they are understandable, logical – though that doesn’t mean they are predictable. There are enough ‘well, I didn’t see THAT coming” to send every reader home happy.

PFC treats the reader with respect, one of my favourite observations. He takes it as read, that you can pick up on the differences and nuances relating to the period (as compared to out lives) without having them set out so a five-year-old can understand. That means a lot to me, and elevates PFC even further in my estimation. The character of Jack Lark is – apart from his personal habits, his methods and motivations, an interesting vehicle for allowing the writer to can see both sides – of the social and army divide. You’ll get a hint of why from the book blurb above, but you’ll need to read this to fully understand what I’m blathering on about.

Also, there’s none of this modern nonsense where all sergeants MUST call those under them ‘ladies,’ or, at a push, ‘gentlemen.’ Because nothing says ‘no-nonsense, don’t mess with me, I’m in no way gay and neither are you, no way’ army-type sergeant’ than someone calling a bunch of new recruits, or no-nonsense (etc) people under him, ‘ladies.’ Here, the difference is, the sergeants knew those under them were worthless. To call them ‘ladies’ would have been elevating their social standings! Redcoats are scum of the earth and generally expendable. But, (obviously) indispensable (as is said on p192: ‘for it was the humble redcoat who would decide the fate of the battle to come’). Battles are won – as always – by whichever side is lucky enough to be able to throw most men in the line, the ‘meat grinder’ as beloved of writers of Roman-period novels, at the right time. Interestingly, for me at least, the descriptions of the Russians attacking, was in a pattern familiar from all the WWI & II books I’ve read. OK, just me then…

To be fair, the points made about this period’s Army officers’ scant regard – or respect – for their Redcoats’ lives or abilities, is pushing at an already open door of course. However, the observations are well-made, well-times and never laboured or hectoring.

Ignore all this ‘the new Sharpe’ nonsense. I wouldn’t know a ‘Sharpe’ if it came up to me, kneed me in the knackers. Lazy stuff from Marketing Department. Though, if that’s what it takes to get you into bookshop to buy this, then go for it. I’m pretty sure I did see something about the character being compared to The Talented Mr Ripley. Maybe so. However, this isn’t bollocks. I’d say, the ‘regeneration’ of Jack Lark is more Dr Who-like. That should get the kids onto the books…

So, a totally believable character, exceptionally well and knowledgeably written and I thoroughly enjoyed it from start to finish.

 

Buy The Scarlet Thief at The Book Depository

Me, on Goodreads

Review : The Serpent Sword. Bernicia Chronicles Book 1

The Serpent Sword
The Serpent Sword. The Bernicia Chronicles book 1 by Matthew Harffy
My rating: of 5 stars

If your knowledge of the history of British Isles stops sometime around at the departure of Rome’s legions and starts again at with the arrival of the Vikings, The Serpent Sword is for you. If you’d like light shone into your own particular historical Dark Ages, with its history brought to full-blooded, exciting, pulse-pounding life, then The Serpent Sword is definitely for you. This is the historical period when legends, gods and language were brought across the North Sea by the resettlement of the Jutes, the Angles and of course, the Saxons. This is the period when many purely English legends began. This is the period when Beowulf was created (‘A great man who had killed a demon,’ as the book says – I spotted it!), when the Sutton Hoo burial took place and even, I would suggest, where the legend of Robin Hood has its origins.

This is where Matthew Harffy is looking to create his own legend; that of Beobrand and the Kingdom of Bernicia.

Northern Britain, AD633. When Britain, was Albion and Britons were Waelisc and England was a series of kingdoms and England didn’t exist… Exciting times to set a novel in, eh? Most definitely.

The Serpent Sword opens with a murder. In the dead of night, an un-named warrior takes dreadful revenge for wrongs and slights, real and imagined. He slays Octa, his woman, Elda and steals the Serpent Sword. Some while later, Octa’s younger brother Beobrand, arrives from his home in the south looking for his brother, unaware he is already dead. There is no time to mourn and Beobrand has to let any plans for avenging his brother’s death simmer, as almost immediately – almost before the echo of his pledge of loyalty to the king has died away – he finds himself fighting for his – and the kingdom’s – very existence in The Battle of Hatfield Chase. Not that there were signs Battle of Hatfield Chase this way of course, but that’s what the ‘disasterous’ battle has come to be known as by us Dark Ages scholars. Those of us who have read Wikipedia, anyway. The Waelisc (which meant ‘foreigners’ to the Anglo-Saxons – but who were actually the original peoples of the lands the Anglo-Saxons were originally foreigners in) under Cadwallon, are victors. Northumberland (a much larger area than in modern times) is effectively divided in two, Cadwallon taking control of the southern half, Deira, leaving King Eanfrith to rule the northern Kingdom of Bernicia.

Luckily for young Beobrand – and the continuation of our story – he survives the battle, though he is sorely wounded. He is nursed back to health by a young Monk called Coenred (clearly a character for development in future books) and in a process that involves treachery from warriors thought loyal, unspeakable atrocities and the making of unlikely friendships and mortal enemies alike, is forged into a warrior worthy of this time of legends. One upon whose shoulders the future of both the kingdom and the hopes of his people rest.

The character of Beobrand is of course central to the book – trouble not so much follows him around, as gets there before him. It is his fortunes we follow as a personification of the troubles of the kingdom. I did feel he started a little shakily, for instance; he seemed battle-ready very quickly and gained acceptance as a warrior a little too easily and some of his outbursts and decisions didn’t quite seem justified by what had happened in the story around them. More description of the opposing forces at the first battle would also have been a good idea. Might have helped with the sense of dread he clearly hoped we’d understand Beobrand to have had. Then there’s ‘the battle calm.’ It did seem to be summoned rather quickly for an inexperienced warrior. Almost like Luke summoning The Force. I do generally need more convincing The Battle Calm actually exists outside of Historical Fiction novels. It’s been used so often in situations when a warrior needs a Get Out of Jail Free card, it can seem a little cliched. However, as the novel progresses Beobrand seemed to grow into the role of warrior hero and it begins to fit him very well.

I also took a step back and mused if his character development wasn’t just a mirror for the uncertain, stumbling from one crisis to another, death of one, birth pangs of another kingdom? Whether or not Matthew H intended it to be so, that’s what I took from it all.

The style at the start I did find a little awkward. There were too many short, choppy sentences that were preventing a decent flow. On reflection, I thought maybe he’s trying the Bernard Cornwell, matter-of-fact, fatalistic style. I wondered if it was because – and clearly I have no experience in these matters, your Honour – the short, choppy sentence style were to convey the tension-causing shortage of breath, quick, darting thoughts that would be how you would be, if you were trying to murder someone? Quite probably. But to work properly, to notice them rather than be irritated by them, they need to be set against longer, perhaps more descriptive passages, otherwise, they lose their power. Feel like notes. That will be expanded upon at a later date. And the style continued into the first section of the book, taking a little of the edge off – for me – the opening first third, where I found myself having to step back (again), to be able to ‘see‘ the story Matthew was intending to put over. Oh and please, never use ‘all of a sudden.’ Anywhere.

Then. Pow! There’s a dramatic improvement somewhere around the one-third mark. Astounding even. A rush of “NOW we’re talking!” as the story, the writing, the whole took wings and flew. Beobrand makes sense, events gell properly and I find myself trying to read whilst gripping both arms of my chair. Not easy when reading on an iPad.

The prose style is strong and clear, sometimes too much so, but then you don’t want to get bogged down in the sodden wastes, wading up to your knees in sludge and cliche of the last Robert Low I read. There are also some interesting, strongly-written, minor characters, many of which are clearly in it for the long run. And of course, ’the love interest.’ She’s a little identikit just now, but from the description of her background, I can well imagine she’ll come more into her own in future books. She might take exception to the clear case of ‘bromance’ going on between Beobrand and Coenred, but then each to his own, I say. There’s also a very interesting point made with reference to the title, one that is not thought about – but then, that’s why I read, and don’t write, books.

So where are we in relation to other writers in similar historical fields just now? Matthew is a new writer and this is his first book. However, the buying public dont know that and won’t cut him any slack because of it. So it has to stand and fall on the merits of what’s on the paper before us. The start did remind me of the beginning of the Hereward books by James Wilde. While it isn’t the main man who explodes on the scene here, it is a formative event and our first encounter with the Serpent Sword of the title (though I did think as such more could have been made of that first meeting). The story includes setting at Bebbanburg castle, currently in Northumberland and Bernard Cornwell’s Warrior Chronicles, though some three hundred years earlier. The Serpent Sword also mentions the island of ‘Hii’ several times, as does Robert Low in his latest Viking story, Crowbone. Though Low calls it ‘Hy’ – we now call it Iona.

The Serpent Sword is just the first instalment in Matthew’s plan for The Bernicia Chronicles. I can easily see how it could be developed much further. Think Bernard Cornwell’s Warrior Chronicles, – however many Cornwell planned originally, success seems to have made it open-ended. Matthew sticks, as far as I can see – and read in his Historical Note at the end – pretty close to what we know of the actual historical events,  but there are so many interesting side-references, to Britain, to the beliefs and social situations, that will set you thinking about early Britain and how this fits in with the following Viking era – well, we clearly have many more hours of Bernician reading pleasure ahead of us. And that’s quite apart from figuring out who exactly the ‘foreigners’ were here!

Early misgivings aside, as Beobrand matures physically, mentally and as a character to carry the story, the book improves in every way, becoming a thoroughly satisfying, well-wrought first book from an exciting new talent. Reading surely comes down to enjoyment. It’s something you do because the stories give you enjoyment and pleasure and The Serpent Sword, puts huge red ticks in all those boxes. There’s a whole lot more clarity, sense of purpose and not least potential than many others you’ll come up against and The Serpent Sword finishes well, ties up ends that needed tying, while leaving enough unresolved to have me already looking forward to part two. Matthew Harffy is clearly one to watch for the future and Beobrand and the Serpent Sword is a legend in the making from a time when legends were made. Get in now, so you too can say “I told you so!”

UPDATE
I have found out – mainly because Matthew told me – that the Bernicia Chronicles will be a multi-book series and that book two, to be called The Cross and the Curse is in the bag, ready to go. So that’s good news.

 

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Review: 1356 – Bernard Cornwell

1356
1356 by Bernard Cornwell
My rating : 4 of 5 stars

Set after the English victory at Crécy, during the Hundred Years’ War and leading up to what by all accounts, this one included, was the apocalyptic battle of Poitiers in the year 1356 of the title. We’re in deepest darkest France and there’s something about a mythical lost sword – ‘la Malice’ – being found and transported somewhere by someone. It’s the sword supposedly used by St Peter – and maybe even touched by You Know Who – in the Garden of Gethsemane, when the Romans came to make an arrest. Of course, the side who has control of the sword, will have God on their side, even more than the other side say they have. God, while being on both sides’ side, is urging them to do to the other side, what His son – He Himself, if you subscribe to the three-in-one principle – spent His whole life and Ministry preaching against. Most of the story follows one Thomas of Hookton, an English archer and leader of a band of warriors, who seems to have a reputation amongst the French, as he is known as Le Batard. Clearly, the ’s’ hadn’t been invented at that point. He is after the sword as well. Though his purpose for finding it is subtly different from the others’. We finally meet ’The Black Prince’ (though, as Cornwell points out, he wasn’t known as ‘The Black Prince’ at the time, nor for a long time afterwards), who is engaged in rampaging through large parts of ‘France,’ trying to get the King of France to come to battle. If the King doesn’t, then the English continue their trail of devastation and destruction and stack up the treasures they find on the way. Win win. However, by the climax, the English do seem to have bitten off more than they can chew and become holed up near Poitiers and the French decide now would be the time to catch an English army, tired and weakened by hunger, at a disadvantage. Especially, as the French now possess the mythical sword and the accompanying support of the chap ‘upstairs.’ But, as anyone knows, so it’s not giving the game away any, the English…Well, despite having read a little of the history of the time at school, I can safely say that Cornwell’s writing here is such that the result is on several knife-edges (sword edges?) throughout. He really is a master of the tense battle scene, the pivotal moment.

It can be tricky keeping track of who is who and who is/isn’t on who’s side. What with some French being on the French side, a fair few ‘English’ being as French as the French – and the Scottish…being the enemies of just about everyone, here mostly the English. Though, that’s not unusual. We do need to be reminded of course, that at this time, the majority – if not all – of the English royalty and aristocracy, spoke (what is now) French. They came form (what is now) France and more often than not, preferred to live there. Large parts of (what is now) France were, it seems, under English control, thanks, most likely, to the legacy of the Norman Conquest. The English characters all seem very down-to-earth, practical and likeable. The Black Prince, is actually quite likeable and Cornwell seems at a loss to know why history remembers him as TBP. The French, are what we English imagine the French to have been/are like – airy, gloomy, on a mission from God and generally running scared. The Scots, of course, are beard-tearingly madder than bulldogs licking piss off a nettle. No change there. I can’t believe Cornwell would go to such stereotypical lengths, so it may just be me. Though, in the Afterward, I think I can see what he’s trying to do with the two sides, in reflecting in their characters, giving the ground reasons for why the outcome was what it was. Very good.

BC does also want us to learn something about life and warfare in the C14th. The book and the general non-battle conversation, is peppered with facts and explanations about the period. You can usually see – and this applies to all books, when ‘a fact’ is coming up, when you read a character saying something and the person being spoken to says (something like) “Wait! What do you mean? Tell me more…” and hereafter follows the lesson. Cornwell actually, manages to disguise it better than most. So it becomes an enjoyment rather than a chore, as Harry Sidebottom makes it. You do wish though, that just once, a historical fiction book set (say) between 800 and 1700 wouldn’t have people rambling on about The Church on every bleeding page. It really is the way to make a dull book. The all-encompassing fatalism, that has become more than a little tiresome in some of the later ‘Warrior Chronicles,’ that no one actually controls their own destiny, can’t take a shit without judging if it is God’s Will before or after, or has any meaningful say over their own lives, is again here in abundance. Difference is, in ‘The Warrior Chronicles’ (at least for BC’s ancestor) it was that no one could know, influence change or even know, what the Norns had spun (him being a Viking and all). Without letting you know until afterwards, of course. Here it is just God. He’s still not letting you know in advance of course, but at least now He has People, many people, to speak for Him.  It is clear that this is one of the themes Cornwell wants to get over, the religious mess. The Church being the self-appointed interpreters of His Will on Earth, have clearly gone such a long way from the original Message, that they can’t get back. What they have decided is the Will Of God, is the opposite of that they were supposed to be teaching. Pertinent. Set in France, and all…

It’s a good tale that rattles along at a fair old pace and mostly seems to fulfil what he set out to do with it. It has a sense of purpose that the last of his I read The Fort lacked. He still likes his, what I call ‘arms-length’ descriptions, matter of fact, blunt style of description especially in the battles, but here it works well and much better than the last Warrior Chronicles one I read. 1356 knows where it’s going, what it has to do to get there and goes to it with alacrity. There’s plenty going on, plenty of action and battle action, with last minute rescues, tense stand-offs and “Ha! Take that!” a-plenty. It’s a very visual and visceral book (in the battle scenes), but with nuances, information and messages as well. Plenty to get your teeth and brain into.

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If it’s 2015, it must be time for – Book of the Year 2014!

I thought I’d actually wait until the year was over (2014, just in case you…) before putting my heads together and seeing what I’d read that was worthy of

The Speesh Golden Bookmark*

for best book/read I read in 2014.

As usual, I don’t seem to have read any of other places’ ‘Books of the Year.’ Partly because I don’t often get on to actually reading books that were released in the year their list covers.

Anyway, I have readed** a fair few books this year. Listened to a fair few as well, after being temporarily (slightly) blind.

So, with grateful thanks to our sponsors –

RegionMidt (the people I work for and who pay, indirectly, for all the books and who really need to put a stop with the Danish Government’s attempts to starve the hospitals of money, calling it ‘savings’ when everyone at the sharp end (me) knows they’re ‘cuts.’ How can you put a price on health? Your health, my health. Can’t. Bastards).

Sydbank (our bank who turn a blind eye to a little overdraft now and then).

And a couple of authors who were kind enough to send me a copy of their books after reading this here blog and surmising, correctly as it turned out, that I might like to be sent their book(s): Here is a list of all the books I have finished in 2014. In order of finishing:

1. The Bourne Imperative : Eric Van Lustbader
2. The Ways of the World : Robert Goddard
3. Ratcatcher : Tim Stevens
4. Secret of the Seventh Son : Glenn Cooper
5. The Last Conquest : Berwick Coates
6. Stay Another Day : Mark Timlin
7. Swords of Good Men : Snorri Kristjansson
8. The Last Minute : Jeff Abbott
9. Arrows of Fury : Anthony Riches
10. Grail Knight : Angus Donald
11. Hannibal. The Patrol : Ben Kane
12. The Small Boat of Great Sorrows : Dan Fesperman
13. Stettin Station : David Downing
14. Elizabeth’s Sea Dogs : Hugh Bicheno
15. The Whitehall Mandarin : Edward Wilson
16. Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Sp : Len Deighton
17. The Lion and The Lamb : John Henry Clay
18. The Rule of Four : Ian Caldwell
19. Out of Exile : Luke Preston
20. Conquest : Stewart Binns
21. Defender of Rome : Douglas Jackson
22. The Lost Symbol : Dan Brown
23. Of Merchants and Heroes : Paul Waters
24. Fortress of Spears : Anthony Riches
25. The Holy Thief : William Ryan
26. The Leopard Sword : Anthony Riches
27. Dead Men’s Dust : Matt Hilton
28. The Wolf’s Gold : Anthony Riches
29. The Dying Hours : Mark Billingham
30. A Farewell to Justice : Joan Mellen
31. The Bat : Jo Nesbø
32. Siege of Heaven : Tom Harper
33. Book of Souls : Glenn Cooper
34. Rome’s Executioner : Robert Fabbri
35. The Eagle’s Vengeance : Anthony Riches
36. A Colder War : Charles Cumming
37. The Emperor’s Knives : Anthony Riches
38. Natchez Burning : Greg Iles
39. The Wolves of the North : Harry Sidebottom
40. 1066 What Fates Impose : G.K. Holloway
41. The Fort : Bernard Cornwell
42. Judgement & Wrath : Matt Hilton
43. The Amber Road : Harry Sidebottom
44. Not In Your Lifetime : Anthony Summers
45. Mission To Paris : Alan Furst
46. The Bourne Retribution : Eric Van Lustbader

So, the best of the year?

Gonna have to be in two categories here. Historical Fiction and plain old Fiction. Maybe also Non-Fiction. Go on then, Non-Fiction as well.

“So what are they?!”

Best Historical Fiction book I read all year:

What Fates Impose1066 What Fates Impose by G.K. Holloway

No doubt about this one. And it’s not just because I finished it late in the year and can’t remember too far back…It’s because it’s a superb book, telling an interesting story in a wonderful way. I can’t remember being so impressed by a book for a good long while. I even forced it upon my neighbour (I/we live in Denmark, he’s also English, fortunately) and he loved it as well. You will believe the English are gonna win, I can assure you. Could do with the cover being a bit more dynamic, but otherwise, I cannot recommend this to you all highly enough.

The author had a look at the type of books I read/reviewed on the site and asked if I would like a copy sent. I haven’t been paid for the review other than getting the book for free.

Here’s my review.
Here’s where you can buy it wherever you live.

Good ol’ G.K. also informs me that it’s on Amazon UK and Amazon US, should you really not want to get it from The Book Depository.

The Best Fiction book I read in 2014

…well, there were two. In order of equalness – or alphabetical, you decide –
I give you:

9780007467471A Colder War by Charles Cumming

Stunning book, absolutely. Glues itself to your hands, turns your brain inside out and has me counting the days to a sequel/follow up/his next one. Spy story par-excellence, bang up to date, harking back to the great spy novels of yore. Simple and effective and much better than a fair few others of his I’ve read. For once, the references to John le Carré are right. Go buy it.

Here’s my review.
Here’s where you can buy it wherever you live.

 

 

The Whitehall MandarinThe Whitehall Mandarin by Edward Wilson

OK, I read a lot of John le Carré when I was younger, so I like a good spy story and this is just that. Not in the shadow of le Carré at all, out on its own. A really interesting, intreguing journey through the’ 60’s, ’70’s, spy scandals, the diplomatic hot-spots and turning points. World-wide in scope, uniquely English in execution. I loved this one from start to finish. Get it bought. Do it now!

Here’s my review.
Here’s where you can buy it wherever you live.

 

 

The Best Non-Fiction book I read all 2014, was:

A Farewell To JusticeA Farewell to Justice. Jim Garrison, JFK’s Assasination and the Case That Should Have Changed History by Joan Mellen

First, an absolutely incredible piece of work. Mind-boggling marshalling of facts into evidence. I really did think this was the last word on the whole affair. Joan Mellen owns the Kennedy conspiracy. Though… Anthony Summers has butted in with Not In Your Lifetime, Mellen still rules – for now.

Another pretty dreadful cover – and don’t let the Oliver Stone quote put you off, you need to read this book.

Here’s my review.

Here’s where you can buy it wherever you live.

Mentioned in dispatches:

Natchez Burning by Greg Iles.

Fabulous. Stunning. All that.

I posted a review. The Natchez tourist people follow me on Twitter. Excellent stuff.

Here’s my review.
Here’s where you can buy it wherever you live.

Alan Furst - Mission to ParisMission to Paris by Alan Furst

His best…so far.

1939, Paris, Berlin, Paris. Subtle, suspense, something else good beginning with ‘s.’

Here’s my review.
Here’s where you can buy it wherever you live.

The Small Boat of Great SorrowsThe Small Boat of Great Sorrows by Dan Fesperman

The Balkans, the Second World War, the Balkan conflict, Italy. One that gets better the more I think about it. And bought for a song in the Porthcawl RNLI shop. Result.

Here’s my review.
Here’s where you can buy it wherever you live.

I hope you enjoyed the books you read in 2014 and that you’re looking forward to the ones you’ll read in ’15.

Remember to read real books (that’ll be ones made from paper) and make sure you only ever use Amazon for books if you really can’t avoid it, or until they start paying the right amount of tax. Like you and I do.

*There isn’t a golden bookmark. I made that up.

**Yes, I know…

Review: The Fort

The Fort
The Fort by Bernard Cornwell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Try as I might – and I tried – I could not get a fix on this one. I couldn’t see to figure out what he wanted to, or was was trying to do, with the book. In the end – and after reading the historical afterword at the back – it seemed most likely that he just wanted to find out about the incident and write down his notes. For himself. Putting his name on it – and it helps if the name you can put on it is Bernard Cornwell of course – and selling it was a bonus.

But that doesn’t help us readers, does it?

It is about an incident in the American Revolutionary war – against the British, if your history isn’t up to it. The British are building a fort at a place called (back then) Majabigwaduce. Nowadays it’s called Castine. Though that didn’t place it any more for me. In fact, the name Majabigwaduce provided a block on me getting a fix on the book right from the start. Being unable – in your head – to pronounce the place where all the action takes place, is not helpful for, even prevents, creating a bond of any sorts while reading. And a daft name at that. Were it me, I’d have kept with the name it has now and explained the change in the notes.

As far as I could gather, it was after the actual revolution, and while there was still some doubt as to where it would go. The attack on the fort set up by the British, was the US’s greatest loss of shipping in wartime, until Pearl Harbour. Or something like that. Many a reputation ruined, some created. The person who comes out of the whole situation – and the book – worst, is Paul Revere. There seems very little point to him at all. Apart from being picked up by an early version US marketing machine, that is. The British are doomed to lose the war, but they win the battle here. Mainly because the US forces are so incompetant. More than they are anyway.

And I never did property figure out who was on which side. Who were ‘rebels’ who were ‘loyalists’ as both sides seemed to use the terms about themselves. The Fort skated around looking for a purpose in the first half. Kind of found something to hook onto when the actual attack on the fort began. But then lost its way again. Flashes of ok-ness, but nothing more from then on in. He’s written better.

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Who’s that over there on the throne?

Arriving faster than a spaceship landing on a comet (a shade under two weeks from London to Denmark – that’s about a week less than ‘usual’), yesterday this little beauty arrived.
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Thanks again to the very wonderful folks at Goldsboro Books, that’s a signed, first edition of Bernard Cornwell‘s latest, number eight in The Warrior Chronicles series. I can’t say yet if there’ll be a number nine, but I wouldn’t bet against it.
The cover follows the previous design and looks absolutely fab-tastic. If I can say that? Anyway, a whole lot better than the up-dated paperback versions have been. Maybe I’ll put something together on that at a future date.
As I remember, I did find the previous one, The Pagan Lord, a little bit on autopilot, so here’s hoping this is better.

Goldsboro have sold out of the signed ones, but you can (and should) buy a copy at The Book Depository, here.

Speesh Reads’ unique Historical Fiction Timeline!

The specially observant of you may have noticed up top there a new Menu item ‘Historical Fiction – The Timeline!

It’s an idea I had the other day, being a trainspotter-type, of putting all the books I’ve read (and got, but not read yet) that could be called (loosely and tightly) ‘Historical Fiction,’ into a chronological timeline. That is to say, put them in order of the dates that they are written about.

I explain at the top of the page how it is ordered, but quickly now – it is a list of books ordered by the dates on which they start.

If I was wanting to give it an importance that clearly isn’t due…I would say that you could think “The 10th Century looks like it was an interesting one, I wonder what books there are that are set back then.” Well, though my list isn’t of course by any means comprehensive, you can now see which books I have read, reviewed or got, that are set in that century. Or another, should your liking be elsewhere.

I’m including as ‘Historical Fiction’ all my books that were written about the past when they were published. If I read a book that was an up-to-date thriller in 1969 (set in 1969) then it isn’t there. If I read a book ‘now’ that is set in 1969, it’s there. Get the picture? Same with George Orwell’s ‘1984.’ When it was written, it was set in the future, Science Fiction, even, now it’s in the past, but isn’t ‘Historical Fiction’ for me.

As ever, they are my interpretations of what is Historical and/or Fiction and it’s me who has combed through the books trying to find evidence of when the book is set. Certain books have missed this info out – some of the Bernard Cornwell ‘Warrior Chronicles’ for example – I’ve no idea why he leaves dates out on some but puts it in on others, with ones like that, it’s my best guess. If you have other ideas, other dates, I stand to be corrected, as the man in the orthopaedic shoes said. And you’re very welcome to tell me differently.

Hope you find it interesting and/or mildly diverting. I haven’t seen it done else where – as yet – so that’s why I’m daring to use ‘unique.’