The Serpent Sword | Matthew Harffy | 2015, Pb 2017 | 333p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 633 AD and the kingdoms of Britain are at war. For young warriors with a sword arm for sale, the time is right to find new lords, to swear new oaths of allegiance. Beobrand is one such young man. His family is dead, only his brother Octa is left. Beobrand leaves his empty shell of a home in Kent and travels north to offer his services to Octa’s lord, King Edwin of Bernicia in the land north of the great Wall. But Beobrand arrives to find Octa dead, his body smashed at the bottom of the cliffs, and Edwin ready to embark on war against the land hungry princes of Wales. Beobrand is told that Octa killed himself, having found his love, whom he also slaughtered, in the arms of another. But the young man refuses to believe this of his giant, fearless, golden brother. Edwin is impressed by the fire in the belly of this untried swordless warrior and puts him in his shieldwall for the coming battle that, as it turns out, so few will survive.
Near death, Beobrand is given comfort and healing in a monastery in the woods, forging new friendships that will last a lifetime. But, following a scene of devastation at the monastery, when warriors come by, professing to be fellow survivors of the battle, Beobrand leaves with them to find a new lord in Bernicia. From this point on, nothing will be the same for Beobrand as he transforms from boy to warrior, learning one lesson after another, discovering for himself the abysmal cruelty of war and the lawless violence that it wreaks on the innocent, and, finally, learning the terrible truth about the fate of Octa. But Beobrand has more than vengeance and battlecraft on his mind – he is also given the chance to love. A love that is all the more precious for its fragility in this time of war.
The Serpent Sword is a visceral and brutal portrait of an enigmatic period in English history when its kingdoms sought to establish themselves – reigns could be short and bloody. We see glimpses of Roman walls and roads but all of that is two hundred years or so in the past. This is the beginning of a new era, one known to us today for its swordsmen and monasteries, but it also was a transitional period in which new gods mixed with old, and old ideas from Rome and the south confronted new thinking from Ireland and northern Europe. All well and good from our perspective – this is a fascinating period – but to be caught up in the turmoil of the times must have been enormously difficult. It is this struggle that Matthew Harffy captures so well in The Serpent Sword.
Beobrand is the perfect hero for the novel. He knows all there is to know about misery but the deaths of his family members are not laboured in the story. Death was commonplace. People no doubt grieved and moved on. But disease is one thing, murder is another and Beobrand’s drive for vengeance is a powerful force through the novel. But he knows to bide his time. We watch his transformation, cheer when he comes into possession of the serpent sword and we’re right there behind him when he has to take on the worst of the worst to bring peace to his brother’s soul.
There is a lot of violence in the novel, including rape. However, it is dealt with well and there is an intriguing moment when Beobrand consciously considers his feelings towards it. There are men here who perhaps don’t do wrong themselves, or think they don’t, but they allow it to happen and Beobrand has no more time for them than he does for the murderers and rapists that he encounters. Nothing is black and white, despite the outright villainy of the novel’s baddie (even he appears at times to have feelings of pride for Beobrand), and it makes for an interesting read. Beobrand’s love story in the novel is also treated very well indeed, not too romanticised, and provides welcome relief from the brutality.
Much of the novel, for me, has the feel of a journey through a forest, with key places located in its clearings, moments of clarity among the darkness of Beobrand’s vengeful pursuit and the kings of Bernicia’s struggle for existence. Along the paths, hidden in the trees, lie evil men, waiting to kill or maim for no reason at all. The battle scenes are vividly done but it’s the violence done by a few evil men that really stands out for me.
I thoroughly enjoyed the character of Beobrand. I cared for him more and more as the novel went on. I was caught up in his story while I was also extremely interested by the history of Bernicia. This is not a period I knew much about. I don’t review independently published novels normally but I couldn’t ignore The Serpent Sword after reading the reviews of Manda Scott and other novelists I admire enormously. The praise is well-deserved – this is a fine debut novel, well-written and well-edited, telling a story that will continue in Matthew Harffy’s next novel.