Review: Killer of Kings – Matthew Harffy

5 of 5 stars

Series: The Bernicia Chronicles 4

My version: eBook
Historical Fiction The Dark Ages, Britain
Head of Zeus Books
2017
Author supplied

AD 636. Anglo-Saxon Britain.

Beobrand has land, men and riches. He should be content. And yet he cannot find peace until his enemies are food for the ravens. But before Beobrand can embark on his bloodfeud, King Oswald orders him southward, to escort holy men bearing sacred relics.

When Penda of Mercia marches a warhost into the southern kingdoms, Beobrand and his men are thrown into the midst of the conflict. Beobrand soon finds himself fighting for his life and his honour.

In the chaos that grips the south, dark secrets are exposed, bringing into question much that Beobrand had believed true. Can he unearth the answers and exact the vengeance he craves? Or will the blood-price prove too high, even for a warrior of his battle-fame and skill?

It really shouldn’t come as a great surprise to me these days, but it still does.

What?!

Well, that Matthew Harffy’s books and stories get better with each new edition. Better story, better character development, better writing, better in every single way you want a Historical Fiction book to be better. Maybe it’s because I was fortunate enough to be in at the start, with Matthew sending me a copy of his first (self-published?) book The Serpent Sword, back in the day. There, the potential and promise was clear to me, now, with Killer of Kings and the Kin of Cain novella, Matthew is really writing his way into the very highest levels of his genre.

Too over the top?

Not a bit of it, just get hold of this superb book and judge for yourself. Am I’m right, or am I right? You’ll know it.

Mathew is in the midst of creating magic here, with his tales of Beobrand’s trials and tribulations. I understand, I think, more about the character now, maybe more about what Matthew is trying to do with him. He’s more mature, deeper and more responsible in his attitude and actions. All of which, is mirrored in the story and the writing. Like the writing, the tale is spreading out, we are also learning more about how the rest of the country was at that time, the ebbing and flowing and shifting of loyalties. But the whole is underpinned by the character of Beobrand, his growing realisation of what he actually wants in life, what has to be done, and especially, who has to be killed to achieve that.

It doesn’t mean that Matthew has reached the top (and had to stop) and there isn’t room for improvement. There are still a couple of rough edges to smooth, some raised eyebrows to remove. But what has struck me most about this book, is the sheer joyous quality of the writing. Yes, there are battles, yes there is blood, lots of it, and revenge and blood. But… a lot of Historical Fiction authors, and potential Historical Fiction authors, do seem to think that all we (real) Historical Fiction lovers are after, is blood. Lots of it. As if, if there isn’t a huge opening battle, several battles in between and a huge battle at the end, we’re not going to rate it. Clearly, the bodice-ripping, Jackie Collins set 300-years ago nonsense that (Cornwell aside), dominates the official Historical Fiction charts, has no place in any genre of Historical Fiction. That goes without saying. But, authors seem to think we need to see blood-soaked, blood-spattered, blood-this, blood-that and blood-the-other, in their promotion of their books, or we’re not going to buy it. Matthew does have perhaps one to many mentions of battle lust, battle-fury, sword-song, (!), even slaughter-sweat (!!) and harvest of man-flesh (groan!). But! That really doesn’t matter. He has become self-aware! And not just because I extract the Michael out of all that sort of stuff: “Why do all tales speak of feeding the ravens and soaking the land in slaughter sweat?” As one character puts it. A good question. Really. However, it’s the atmosphere, the melancholy, the uncertainty, the doubt, the sheer what the fuck is going on?!, he conjures of the period, that is what is making his books absolutely essential reading for true Historical Fiction fans nowadays. I am sat here reading it, while the story, and it’s like smoke wreathing its way around me, working its way up to my head and transporting me back, to the sights, the sounds, the smell and the (to a 20th century boy) different world that was 7th century Britain. That thought is pointing to something else I think Matthew would have great success in weaving into his books. How did the people at the time, feel about their past? Their own past where they came from, given they’re Anglo Saxons, and the history of the land to which they are now come, and are fighting to defend. Beobrand has his issues with the Picts, they’re still there. But what about the Romans? They use Roman roads, albeit fallen into disrepair, presumably also their buildings, and the Wall, of course, but how did they feel about them? OK, there’s probably not an awful lot of source material from the period to work on, but something past the walls and roads built by giants routine, would work its way in just nicely I think. I hope so.

So, final pedantry: If it’s intentional, it’s (another) stroke of genius. He sometimes, appropriately enough given the Anglo-Saxons’ origins, uses Danish sentence word-order, “How came you to that place?” In Danish, if a sentence starts with anything but the subject – time, place, etc -, the word order is different to English, with the verb coming before the subject. “Hvordan kom du til det sted?” Word for word. And, a term we use all the time in Denmark, to mean a very, very short period of time, a moment, some 1,300-odd years after his books are set, ‘et øjeblik.’ An eye-blink, as used by Beobrand in chapter 32…There ya go!

Thank you, thank you and thank you again to Matthew Harffy for letting me be even a small part of his journey. And it’s not over yet. There is clearly much, much more to come from our brightest emerging Historical Fiction talents.

*A tip: Read it while playing The Last of The Mohicans soundtrack – does wonders!

You can buy Killer of Kings from Amazon

Related reviews on Speesh Reads:

The Kin of Cain, Matthew Harffy Blog Tour!

Well, that was fun. I’m glad I took part in that one. I put a fair few hours in behind the scenes there, but I hope it’s not the last.

The ‘Tour’ itself is over now, but the various articles and reviews on the blogs involved, are of course still out there in the old cyberspace.

I think it would be a shame, for those who didn’t get to it while it was on, for me to just move on and leave it all behind. Rather than do links here to all the various sites, here are links to the pages I set up for the tour:

‘Interview’ with Matthew Harffy Part One

‘Interview with Matthew Harffy Part Two

Review of Kin of Cain

As I was once rightly told that ‘everything before the ‘but,’ is bullshit,’ I’ll go with …

However, while I linked to all the other blogs – and even sent out several Tweets linking to their parts in the tour – I didn’t see much in the way of return links.

In fact, only David’s Book Blurg included a link back here to Speesh Reads, the rest, at best, included the artwork we were all sent including the websites names, but not ‘clickable.’ I got more visits out of Tweets
and re-Tweets from other authors!

Makes you wonder why you bother, eh? I didn’t expect a link back from For Winter Nights, she once took great exception for me calling her out over her ‘reviews’ of, amongst others, Anthony Riches’ Empire series. I agreed a while back to a hands-off policy there, but I’m reconsidering that now.
She has banned me and blocked me on Twitter. So who is the more bitter and twisted about that? Can’t take criticism, I’d say. You decide. I did expect something back from the others though.
But was disappointed.

I set up a ‘fast’ home page, links to all the other blogs, changed the dates when they came live – even reminded ‘someone’ when the blog post was due, but hadn’t appeared, wrote a huge number of what were hopefully out of the ordinary questions, split and ran the ‘interview’ over two days, Tweeted fast and furious promoting not only my contribution but also the contributions of others, and wrote a full review that showed I had at least read and thought about the book…

All for free, all done in my own time – while I was at work, in the case of many of the Tweets.

This Blogging ‘Community’ only seems to work one way, eh?

Note Publishers. Authors.

Review: Kin of Cain (A short novella of The Bernicia Chronicles) – Matthew Harffy

kin-of-cain-matthew-harffy5 of 5 stars

Series: A Bernicia Chronicles novella

My version: eBook
Historical Fiction Dark Ages, England
Aria, Head of Zeus
2017
Supplied


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 Serpent SwordThe 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.

pigeons-from-hellI 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…

You can buy Kin of Cain, now. Paperback or for your Kindle at Amazon

Also at Kobo, iBooks and Google Play

Read my interview with Matthew: Part One, Part Two

Related reviews on Speesh Reads:

The Serpent SwordThe Cross and the Curseblood-and-blade-matthew-harffy

‘Blog Tours’ just got a whole lot better!

Check it out:

kin-of-cain-blog-tour-banner

The Final Countdown…

Europe! Are you ready?!

“Yes, we are!” – Europe.

Pre-order now. Unleashed 2 March.

kin-of-cain-matthew-harffy

The only list that mutters!

Well, it’s that time again, when everyone puts their list of best books of the year up, so I will too. They all put them up too early though, I wait until the year is actually over, if you’ve noticed.

So that makes my list that much better, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Anyway, in time-honoured tradition, here are all the books I finished last year, in the order I read them:

*You’ll note that they are books I read last year, not books that were necessarily released last year, though of course some were. Where I’ve got round to writing a review, click on the book title to go to the review page.

  1. The Templar Cross (Templar 2) : Paul Christopher
  2. Masters of Rome (Vespasian 5) : Robert Fabbri
  3. Crusade (The Making of England 2) : Stewart Binns
  4. American Assassin (Mitch Rapp 1) : Vince Flynn
  5. Good As Dead (Tom Thorne 10) : Mark Billingham
  6. Blood Tracks (Tess Grey and Po Villere 1) : Matt Hilton
  7. The Pale Criminal (Bernard Gunther 2) : Philip Kerr
  8. The Thunder God : Paul Watkins
  9. Hereward The Immortals (Hereward 5) : James Wilde
  10. Fire & Steel (King’s Bane 1) : C.R. May
  11. Kill Shot (Mitch Rapp 2) : Vince Flynn
  12. The Virgin of The Wind Rose : Glenn Craney
  13. Savage Continent. Europe in the Aftermath of World War II) : Keith Lowe
  14. Enemy of Rome (Gaius Valerius Verrens 5) : Douglas Jackson
  15. Cut and Run (Joe Hunter 4) : Matt Hilton
  16. A German Requiem (Bernard Gunther 3) : Philip Kerr
  17. The Templar Throne (Templar 3) : Paul Christopher
  18. The Double Game : Dan Fesperman
  19. Brother’s Fury (Bleeding Land Trilogy 2) : Giles Kristian
  20. Tripwire (Jack Reacher 3) : Lee Child
  21. Transfer of Power (Mitch Rapp 3) : Vince Flynn
  22. Hannibal. Fields of Blood (Hannibal 2) : Ben Kane
  23. Knight of The Cross : Steven A. McKay
  24. Blood and Ashes (Joe Hunter 5) : Matt Hilton
  25. Anarchy (The Making of England 3) : Stewart Binns
  26. Scourge of Rome (Gaius Valerius Verrens 6) : Douglas Jackson
  27. The Templar Conspiracy (Templar 4) : Paul Christopher
  28. The Maharaja’s General (Jack Lark 2) : Paul Fraser Collard
  29. Imperial Fire : Robert Lyndon
  30. Lionheart (The Making of England 4) : Stewart Binns
  31. The Third Option (Mitch Rapp 4) : Vince Flynn
  32. Rome’s Lost Son (Vespasian 6) : Robert Fabbri
  33. The Visitor (Jack Reacher 4) : Lee Child
  34. The Harrowing : James Aitcheson
  35. Keane’s Company (Keane 1) : Iain Gale
  36. The Far Shore (Agent of Rome 3) : Nick Brown
  37. Separation of Power (Mitch Rapp 5) : Vince Flynn
  38. Gods of War (King’s Bane 2) : C.R. May
  39. Executive Power (Mitch Rapp 6) : Vince Flynn
  40. The Secret Speech (Leo Demidov 2) : Tom Rob Smith
  41. Nemesis (Harry Hole 4) : Jo Nesbø
  42. The Count of Monte Christo : Alexandre Dumas
  43. Dead Men’s Harvest (Joe Hunter 6) : Matt Hilton
  44. Echo Burning (Jack Reacher 5) : Lee Child
  45. The Twelfth Department (Captain Alexei Dimitrevich Korolev 3) : William Ryan
  46. The Wolf and the Raven (The Forest Lord 2) : Steven A. McKay
  47. Hannibal. Clouds of War (Hannibal 3) : Ben Kane
  48. Without Fail (Jack Reacher 6) : Lee Child
  49. The Furies of Rome (Vespasian 7) : Robert Fabbri
  50. The Templar Legion (Templar 5) : Paul Christopher
  51. Blood and Blade (The Bernicia Chronicles 3) : Matthew Harffy
  52. Memorial Day (Mitch Rapp 7) : Vince Flynn
  53. The Death of Robin Hood (The Outlaw Chronicles 8) : Angus Donald
  54. Consent to Kill (Mitch Rapp 8) : Vince Flynn
  55. God of Vengeance (The Rise of Sigurd 1) : Giles Kristian
  56. Terror Gallicus (Brennus. Conqueror of Rome 1) : C.R. May
  57. Red Templar (Templar 6) : Paul Christopher
  58. Dead Letter Drop (Max Flynn 1) : Peter James
  59. The Devil’s Assassin (Jack Lark 3) : Paul Fraser Collard
  60. Act of Treason (Mitch Rapp 9) : Vince Flynn
  61. Persuader (Jack Reacher 7) : Lee Child
  62. Iron & Rust (Throne of The Caesars 1) : Harry Sidebottom
  63. Agent 6 (Leo Demidov 3) : Tom Rob Smith
  64. Protect and Defend (Mitch Rapp 10) : Vince Flynn

Well, looking at that list, you can maybe see that my aim for reading in 2016, was to read as many of the series as I’ve got (the books laid in for, Mitch Rapp for example), or already begun, as possible.

I had intended on not starting any new series in ’16, but didn’t quite manage it. I’m going to continue to read up the series I have started, then get on to the one-offs in 2017. I want to be able to still read series, but read the latest book, as it is released. Not be behind the curve. Also, there are some really quite interesting one-offs out there, and in my collection, that I’d really like to get on to. I’m not against reading series or authors writing them, but I’d like to see an author or publisher take more of a chance on a one-off. It seems a given that any new author is signed if he/she has one book finished and two more sketched out. We need to get away from that, I feel. Get away from the feeling that book one is merely setting the scene for two and three and is stretched out further than it really should have been, the otherwise really just fine Harry Sidebottom’s Iron and Rust springs to mind in that category.

I also have a few Non Fiction books lined up that I’d really like to get on with as well.

My Goodreads aim will again be to read 52 books in the course of the year. I made it up to 64 partially thanks to

  1. Two doses of Influenza, one after the other
  2. Some enforced ‘use it or lose it’ holiday home alone while the wife slaved
  3. Listening to audiobook versions of some of the books I actually have physical versions of (I’ve recently moved from Audible to Storytel. Nothing against Audible as a service, just that Storytel gives me unlimited listening a month, for one flat fee, whereas Audible gives you one credit for your fee, after that you have to buy, or wait for the next month’s credit). I can listen to and from work in the bus, and while walking from the bus to work and back and…well, you get the picture

52 – 64 books read in a year is really about the limit for reading, appreciating, ruminating on and writing an honest appreciation I think. Anyone saying they’re reading more, isn’t really doing any one of those properly. And you can quote me on that.

And speaking of categories…

consent-to-kill-vince-flynnblood-and-blade-matthew-harffyThe Award for the ‘Most Improved’ Series Award
Sharing this award is:
Vince Flynn for The Mitch Rapp Series
The still unexplained ten year gap between three and four (or was it two and three?) apart, this series gets better and better. I noted that he seemed to be aiming to write the perfect thriller, he’s there for the last two I’ve read. The UK publishers clearly want you to think ‘Jack Reacher’ when you see the covers, but these are so much better.
Matthew Harffy for The Bernicia Chronicles
Well, if you read book one and then book three, you’d wonder if they were written by the same person. So either he’s got a ghost-writer, or he’s improved a hundred-fold in the space of three books. Personally, I’m leaning towards the former.

the-wolf-and-the-ravenAward for the ‘Best Series Based on the lyrics for Duran Duran’s ‘Hungry Like The Wolf” Award
Steven A. McKay for Wolf’s Head, The Wolf and the Raven, Wolf’s Bottom, Rise of the Wolf, I’m On The Ground I’m After You and many more.

 

the-death-of-robin-hood-angus-donaldThe Award for ‘Sad To See It End’ Series Award
Angus Donald for The Outlaw Chronicles
I’ve maybe had my doubts about this series a couple of times – too much of it set in France – but…Angus got his revenge in the best possible way with an absolutely magnificent final book. He’s gone on to new writing pastures and I’m still misting over thinking about the final scene in this book. Really, do yourselves a serious favour and read the series (in order) if you haven’t done so yet. Robin Hood lives!

the-furies-of-rome-robert-fabbriThe Award for the Most Consistent Series Award
Robert Fabbri for Vespasian
When I’m blown away by book seven in an on-going series and champing at the bit for the next one, you know the series has something good going for it. The Furies of Rome was nothing short of a masterclass in Historical Fiction, one more authors in that field could well do with reading.

Gods of War CR MayThe Award for The Most Surprisingly Good Series Award
C. R. May for King’s Bane. Well, where did this come from?! Somewhere in East Anglia, I think. And the post to Denmark … well, anyway, Cliff (I feel I can call him Cliff now) was kind enough to send me a copy of the first King’s Bane book, and i was seriously blown away with how good it was and how quickly I became completely immersed in the pre-Viking European world he created.

The Bleeding LandBrothers' FuryThe Award for Biggest Disappointment Award
No! Not in that way…it’s because there are (so far) only two in Giles Kristian’s absolutely magnificent English Civil War trilogy. It’s listed as a trilogy and is set up after book two for a number three, but for one reason and/or another, it’s just a duo as yet. But what a hum-dinger book three is/will (hopefully) be. Maybe we should crowd-fund it? Stranger things have happened. I’m in!

 

But…here is the book I was most impressed with, made the biggest impression on me in 2016

The Prestigious Solid Gold Speesh Reads Best Book of 2016 Award


The HarrowingThe Harrowing
: James Aitcheson

From the moment I started it to the moment I finished it, there was never any doubt in my mind that this was going to be the best book I would read all year. I’m still reviewing the video his words created in my mind every so often. I don’t think it will fade. It was a book set in the aftermath of 1066, that felt bang up to date. It’s the best of 2016 and probably many other years as well.

My review

You can buy The Harrowing here

Honourable mentions

The Death of Robin Hood : Angus Donald
It’ll be a classic for future generations.

The Thunder God : Paul Watkins
Unbelievably good Viking saga. How they should be wrote.

Agent 6 by Tom Rob Smith
The final bittersweet book in the Leo Demidov trilogy.

Well, thanks for reading all the way down here, thanks for reading my blog in 2016, I hope you come back in 2017. I also hope the books you read last year, were at least as good as those I read. Have a happy and safe new year – and, good reading!

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: Gods of War by C.R. May


Gods of War CR May
5 of 5 stars

Series:
King’s Bane 2

My version:
eBook
Historical Fiction Post Roman, pre-Viking Dark Ages
N/A
2016
Author supplied

Spring 524A.D.

As the last settlers board the ships which will carry them to Anglia, Eofer and the men of his war band are sent to harry the Danish coast, drawing the enemy eastwards as King Eomær’s host lands in the west.

But the gods of war can be fickle, and the ravaging does not end as planned.

A warlord, Ubba silk beard, leads the counterattack. Driving the raiders from the kingdom he pursues them through the forests of Scania as the war of fire and steel rages on.

Other forces are at work, other ventures already in play.

Seizing his chance for kingship an assassin strikes, and a new power emerges from the ruins of the old as the young Danish king gathers his army and marches to confront the invader.

Gods of War is the second volume in the bestselling King’s Bane series, the genesis of England.

I’ve finished this. I put it down. I’m stunned. I have something in my eye, that’s why it’s watering honestly…Maybe some dust, that’s all… But, I’m thinking “Wow! THAT was incredible! When’s the next one?!”

At first, I thought it was slow to get going, it seemed to take a couple of chapters to settle down in my mind. Then I figured it out, now I know better. I just had to let my mind be transported back with Mr May and his time machine and relate to the characters as they would be in their time, not from the point of view of my conceptions. What I mean is, like this: They call themselves ‘English‘ but they’re clearly not from what we know as England. They believe in the Nordic gods, but wait, isn’t this before the Viking age, and anyway, why do they call him Woden? It’s Odin, isn’t it? I’ve read a lot of books about the Romans, the Romans in Britannia, and uncountable numbers of books about Vikings. But this, you and I must remember, is in between. This is when the soon-to-be Vikings, were still called ‘Danes’ to the people’s of the lands they ‘visited’ and, before Denmark was all it is today. This is, therefore, still ‘Britannia,’ the people ‘Britons’ and the peoples we’re reading about here, are the English. Who, with the Saxons and the Jutes, are beginning to move over to the east coast of Britannia.

Once I and the characters had got our bearings, I was completely swept away, carried along by the enveloping and thrilling storytelling, the great, often poignant writing and the multitude of thoughts it will send running around in your head. Interestingly, it reminded me of another recently released, soon to be classic, James Aitcheson’s superb The Harrowing. It’s all about the style of a writer who immerses his story and then his readers so deeply in the period, it feels like he’s just describing what he actually sees, what’s going on around him (time travel?).

It’s perhaps a more reflective piece than book one, and there is a lot of ground to cover, literally. The English, before they can re-join the first of their countrymen and women in their new home in Britannia, must first sort out the Danes. They launch fake attacks to the west of the approaching Danes, before shock troops attack from behind their lines. Once this is accomplished, the main forces can travel west and make the hazardous crossing to (east) Anglia and a new life. If you’ve read any of the newer non-fiction books covering this period, you’ll be aware, that thinking nowadays is not that the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes attacked at one time, like the Vikings after them, but came gradually over a period of time, until the original occupants went on to be called ‘strangers’ (Wælisc), in their own lands. Many were possibly mercenaries or recruits from the Germanic lands, used by the Romans, who, after the Romans left, decided to stay. This turbulent period is, it seems to me, becoming increasingly attractive to Historical Fiction writers, who, I would say, normally stick to the Romans and the Vikings, which sell books, avoiding the period in between, which clearly hasn’t, until now. C.R. May’s books – along with those of Matthew Harffy and E S Moxon are coming as long-awaited rain on my particular parched patch of knowledge.

As an aside, one of the (many) really interesting aspects of reading these books, is seeing where many of the names I grew up with (English), and those I use today (Danish), possibly came from. (Here, of course, I’m trusting Mr May’s research!). Now living in Denmark, and being fluent in Danish, I may have an advantage over the average reader, but trust me, as far as I can see, it’s all well-founded.

There are battles and sword-play and the hacking and the surviving, then fighting and raiding again, enough to keep all those who read for that more than happy. However, I think books like this and The Harrowing are doing something else within the genre. Can I suggest that? I think I can. Shaking it up a bit, looking at life in the dark ages, a little differently. Yes, you are knocked a little out of your Hist Fic comfort zone at the start – of both books – until your mind’s time travel trip is completed and you get used to the ‘new’ names, the different names and the unusual concept that the ‘English’ and ‘England’ is to the south of the Jutland (Jylland, to me) peninsula. And where they want to settle, is Anglia, in the east of Britannia. Once you are attuned, the story will transport you, almost physically. The characters will come to glorious life in your head and ultimately, you’ll get much more pleasure out of books like Gods of War, than you will from 99% of ‘Historical Fiction’ there is out there. No doubt in my mind, this is already a book, a series, that will stay with me as long as I read books.

If you like your Historical Fiction raw, real, soaked in history and bursting with new life – and death – that weaves its way in and wraps itself around your mind, until you can see, hear, touch and almost taste the dark ages, ‘Gods of War’ (as with ‘Fire & Steel’ before it), is a book you cannot ignore. A book that from the cover, from the first page, to the last word on the last page, bursts with quality, daring, ideas and with an extra layer of fascination – then ‘King’s Bane’ is a series you have to get into. I can not recommend this series highly enough. “How highly?” “Higher! Higher than that!”

You can, and should, buy Gods of War from Amazon

Related reviews on Speesh Reads:

Fire & Steel (large)The Serpent SwordWulfsuna

 

 

 

 

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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:

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Me, on Goodreads

The only list that matters – Best in Show 2015!

The best book I read all year, was…

First, a list over all the books I started to read (or finished, in the case of the first on the list) in 2015.

Click on the title to go to my review for the book.

Apocalypse : Dean Crawford
The Bourne Ascendancy : Eric van Lustbader
A Traitor’s Fate : Derek Birks
Cockroaches : Jo Nesbø
The Last Viking : Berwick Coates
The Moscow Option : Jeremy Duns
The Iron Castle : Angus Donald
Avenger of Rome : Douglas Jackson
Viking America : James Robert Enterline
The Sea Road : Margaret Elphinstone
The Sword and the Throne : Henry Venmore-Rowland
Sword of Rome: Douglas Jackson
Crowbone : Robert Low
The Serpent Sword : Matthew Harffy
The Black Stone : Nick Brown
The Confessor : Daniel Silva
Potsdam Station : David Downing
Blood Will Follow : Snorri Kristjansson
The Bone Tree : Greg Iles
Killing Floor : Lee Child
Hereward. Wolves of New Rome : James Wilde
False God of Rome. Vespasian III : Robert Fabbri
The Corners of the Globe : Robert Goddard
Lehrter Station : David Downing
An Officer and a Spy : Robert Harris
Masaryk Station : David Downing
Wulfsuna : E.S. Moxon
Catastrophe : Max Hastings
The Northmen’s Fury : Philip Parker
The Cairo Affair : Olen Steinhauer
Hanns and Rudolf : Thomas Harding
The Siege : Nick Brown
The Ends of the Earth : Robert Goddard
The Bloody Meadow : William Ryan
The Long Ships : Frans G. Bengtsson
Slash and Burn : Matt Hilton
The Redbreast : Jo Nesbø
Rome’s Fallen Eagle : Robert Fabbri
The Sword of the Templars : Paul Christopher
The King’s Assassin : Angus Donald
March Violets : Philip Kerr
Hannibal. Enemy of Rome : Ben Kane
The Imperial Banner : Nick Brown
Path of Gods : Snorri Kristjansson
The Scarlet Thief : Paul Fraser Collard
Solomon Creed : Simon Toyne
Child 44 : Tom Rob Smith
Die Trying : Lee Child
The Cross and The Curse : Matthew Harffy
At The Ruin of The World : John Henry Clay
I Am Pilgrim : Terry Haynes

Well, I read a whole load of very good, enjoyable books in 2015. Several from authors I’d read before and some from authors new to me. On reflection, there were several contenders for best book, however, as I decided I really couldn’t single one out like that, here’s, by genre, my picks from last years’ crop.

Click on the cover to buy the book from The Book Depository, click on the title, to read what passes for my review.

Thriller
The Bone TreeThe Bone Tree by Greg Iles
If you’ve read this, you’ll know what I’m on about. It’s an 800-page monster. but grips like a vice from the get go and does not let go. I read it over a long weekend and, as the cliche goes, could not put it down.
You do need to have read Natchez Burning (the first in this trilogy and also an 800-page monster), to get the full impact from the book, as that sets up a lot of the revelations and general fuck ME!”s you get from what goes on and what is revealed in The Bone Tree. If you’ve read Natchez Burning, but not got onto this yet, you’re in for a treat. If you’ve not read either, do so now! Steven King cannot be wrong! (He’s quoted on the front cover, if you’re wondering).
Book three is out in the spring, I think.

I Am PilgrimI Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes
What can I say? I’m finding I am still speechless at how good this one was. Another beast of a long one, but it doesn’t read like it – you won’t notice how long it is once you get well and truly glued too it – you’ll think only that it’s too short when it’s over. Bang up to date in story, treatment and all that, it doesn’t have an agenda and you’re not supposed to either have your prejudices confirmed or destroyed. A refreshingly ‘this is how it is’ sort of thing. A one-off, which is a rarity, though it would stand being a series, but it’s probably best it isn’t. The Guardian’s quote obviously ignores The Bone Tree, but otherwise, for once, they’re not too far off the pace. Incredible enjoyment. And that’s why we read, isn’t it?

Historical Fiction

Probably my most read genre, so there was always going to be a few to choose from here. I had a particularly good year and it came down to three I couldn’t get a cigarette paper in between.

Hannibal Enemy of RomeHannibal Enemy of Rome by Ben Kane
For me, a glorious return to the Ben Kane fold. It’s not that he went away or anything daft like that, just it had been quite a while since I’d read one of his books. He is very active, as they say, on the old social media, so I feel like I’ve also been along for the ride, even without actually reading one of his books for a couple of years. I decided to skip Spartacus and get straight into Hannibal. Wow! I was captivated the whole way through. It’s a good long book, but it’s also lean, mean and effective storytelling. An even-handed presentation of wars between Carthage and Rome, that takes neither sides, nor prisoners. A real pleasure to read and learn and a super set-up for the other two in the trilogy, not to mention the next series.

Rome's Fallen EagleRome’s Fallen Eagle by Robert Fabbri
This was an absolute joy to read. Really excellent descriptive work and a captivating story, with no signs of Robert having to straight-jacket the/his Vespasian character in order to fit things into what is the accepted historical timeline and facts and all that. After a stomach-churning time in Rome with the previous book (False God of Rome), this one is – especially as he’s out in the open of Germania and Britannia (albeit in the forests most of the time) – a real breath of fresh historical air. There’s a freedom, a sense of adventure and a clarity of purpose that is just perfect. And, that it’s number four in a series, when most series are showing signs of the well having run dry, is even more remarkable. Well, I think so anyway.

The Sea RoadThe Sea Road by Margaret Elphinstone
Speaking of remarkable…I can’t remember who and when this was recommended but I’m really, really glad I read it. She is a Scottish writer as far as I can see and if, like me, you have any sort of interest in the Vikings voyages to North America, you’ll love this book. Poignant, wistful, yearning, tear-jerking…all kinds of wonderful stuff. Keep your wits about you to get the most from the ending section. Real saga storytelling i the 21st Century that knocks nonsense like the last few Robert Low Viking parodies into place. Also proof, if Robert Low and Giles Kristian need it, that it didn’t always rain from leaden skies, every day, ‘back then.’

Non Fiction

I also occasionally venture out and sample the real world, so here goes:

Hanns and RudolfHanns and Rudolf by Thomas Harding
A thoroughly intriguing and surprisingly even-handed look at the lives of two Germans leading to, during the and after, the Second World War. That, by a quirk of fate, one was born Jewish and one to German parents, starts the comparison. Their fates obviously diverge somewhat, after that seemingly even start. Whilst the main thrust, is the author’s trying to figure out what his grandfather (?) did during the war, that he didn’t feel the need to talk about, it’s most rewarding for, through not actually writing the comparing and the contrasting, looking at why, how someone became the Commandant of Auschwitz. People who know more than me are never going to agree, and it’s wrong to look for a one line answer, however…this comes closest of all the books I’ve read – and I’ve read a few.

An Officer and a SpyAn Officer and A Spy by Robert Harris
Not strictly non-fiction, but a dramatising of fact, in fiction in a A Day of The Jackal-type way. If that guy who wrote Schindler’s Ark can get away with it, Rober Harris can, the other way, in my list.
I was familiar with the name Dreyfus and also with Affair and that it was a big deal to French people, both back then, and now. So, I thought, let’s find out. After reading a few barnstormers by the formidable M. Harris, I got into this. Phew! Incredible…such bravery, such fortitude, such stupidity, bare-faced lying and moral courage. If right was done, it was done too late to save face, lives were ruined and very few came out smelling of roses. As a way of understanding the utterly stupid – though probably not thought stupid at the time – mind-set that led to World War I, it’s indispensable.

And finally Esther…

Independent

Well, it should be a genre, or maybe not a genre, as they write in genres, but…erm, well, many plucky authors – and you make up your own reason why here – clearly send their manuscripts to the boss of Decca, or the umpteen people the Hairy Potter woman did. And, as a blind blogger, I don’t see Self-Published as a different genre to be avoided like a plague, not touched with a barge-pole, I’m way too good to waste my time on that stuff, don’t you know, now what does this publisher want me to say, oh yes : It’s BRILLIANT! Yes, I see them as books and stories and really, really good.

The two I know are Independent sort of things I read this year, both – fortunately – turned out to be excellent. So, purely in order of ace-ness of cover, here they are:

The Serpent SwordThe Cross and The CurseThe Serpent Sword and The Cross and The Curse by Matthew Harffy
Despite having a face that says ‘read my books or I send the boys round’ Matthew seems a really nice guy. Goes without saying, he knows his Anglo-Saxon onions too. The loner, outsider, proving his worth against the odds, isn’t new. However, it is new when set in Anglo-Saxon invasion times. That’s after the Romans and before the Vikings, to you and me. The real beauty here, is The Cross and the Curse. Fan-Saxon-Tastic! I almost wanted to hug him, but then thought of the publicity shot and thought better of it – it’s so good. Go buy it (it’s out NOW!) as they say) and get in on the ground floor, then it won’t just be me saying ‘of course, I’ve been reading Harffy for years, don’t you know?’

Wulfsuna by E.S. Moxon
Despite having the same surname as one of my neighbours (also English) near here at Speesh Towers in deepest Harlev, Denmark, this is a superb first effort from the lovely Ms.M. She of course got an extra star for either being from Birmingham, or now living there, I forget which. Anyway, this is in the same sort of ball-park as Matthew, in the Anglo Saxon ball-park, that is. However, in a way, the Wulfsuna stories are the other side of the fence (in that ball-park?), I thought. As they start, with the main characters coming over to Britain, rather than Matthew’s already having been here a good while. I thought a lot of Snorri Kristjansson’s books, in that there were some fantasy elements woven into what is obviously a very clever interpretation of the historical records. As in, she knows what we know and uses that as a launch pad for the stories.
I think I’m right in putting this in the Independent pile, though it is published by Silverwood Books. Anyway, who needs a tin-pot genre like Indie, when the story and writing is as good as this? Not me, no sir.

So there you have it. It could well be, if you’ve read any of the above, that you think differently. That’s great. All I hope, is that you enjoyed whichever books you read last year and you enjoy all the books you read this year. That’s, as I say, what it’s all about. Reading books for enjoyment. And I finish and review all the books I start. Oh, thanks for reading this blog, btw.