Aria | 2016 (1 December) | Review copy | Buy the book
With Blood and Blade, Matthew Harffy continues the Bernicia Chronicles which began with The Serpent Sword, followed by The Cross and the Curse. While I’d recommend that you read the books in order, I do think that Blood and Blade also works well on its own as a self-contained, action-packed historical adventure set during one of the most mysterious periods in English history – the 7th century AD.
It is AD 635 and Oswald is now King of Northumbria and he is ready to seal his ascendancy by marriage to princess Cyneburg, daughter of Cyneglis, King of Wessex, an alliance that would be further strengthened by Cyneglis’s rather pragmatic conversion to the Christian faith. Beobrand accompanied Oswald south for the marriage, meaning he had no choice but to leave behind situations unresolved, but, when news comes of a Pictish attack, Beobrand is once again disgruntled to learn that he’s been chosen to escort Cyneburg northwards while Oswald and the others race ahead to confront their enemy. But Beobrand needn’t have worried that the journey home would be uneventful. It soon becomes clear that they are being watched. Meanwhile, back at home in the north, Beobrand’s household is itself threatened by forces most unexpected.
I’m not a fan of the term ‘Dark Ages’ because the surviving art, literature and archaeology of the Saxon period suggests the period was anything but, but it is most definitely true that little is known about the lives of the key people of the time beyond a few words in the chronicles. We’re lucky to have those. Matthew Harffy does not let this stand in his way. He has a gift, clearly based on meticulous research (not to mention a deep empathy with the period), to flesh out the little we know to bring it to life. Harffy’s Saxon novels are full of colour, enriched not just by battles, feuds and unsteady alliances but also with passages that deal with daily life during the 7th century, including marriages, children, religion, superstition as well as a sense of the world around them. It’s a little thing but I love the way in which characters notice – and use – the Roman ruins left behind, just as I also enjoy the journeys that Beobrand makes across the landscape.
The battle and skirmish sequences are so well done. They’re bloody and horrifying. The shieldwall warriors might seem fearless in the face of the enemy but that doesn’t mean they’re not afraid. The repercussions of such violence are shown in the medical scenes. I must admit that I didn’t necessarily read all of those bits with my eyes open. I would not have made a good Saxon warrior or monk (it’s the monks who perform the surgery). Blood and Blade, despite the title, isn’t all combat, though. There are domestic scenes and women play their part in moving the novel along, although they do reinforce my notion that this was a particularly bad time to have been born female. Whether a princess or slave, life was out of the control of most women. More than one woman here revolts against this and the risks are high. One woman has been driven beyond the fringes of society. It’s debatable whether we’re supposed to feel sympathy for this character or not. I rather did.
Matthew Harffy writes well, the prose enriched by his immersion in the period. As is often the case with novels set during the more unknowable times, I didn’t feel completely comfortable with all of the dialogue, but it’s difficult to see how it could have been done in any other way without being anachronistically modern. It’s probably partly because of this that I’m not a big reader of Saxon and early medieval novels. I studied Ango-Saxon language and literature at University and this has had the disappointing side-effect of detaching me from historical fiction set during this period.
Nevertheless, I think that Matthew Harffy has done a brilliant job with this series. Blood and Blade is vigorous, well-researched historical fiction. Richly evocative of an age that can appear more legend than history, the novel’s scope is broad – Saxon warriors march across its pages to combat Picts, Mercians, old enemies and new, while the monks endeavour to spread their influence, and the women face battles of their own. Excellent!
The Serpent Sword