Category Archives: Saxon

Lancelot by Giles Kristian

Bantam Press | 2018 (31 May) | 498p | Review copy | Buy the book

Lancelot by Giles KristianIt is time for the island’s people to reclaim the land once ruled by Romans. The great stone buildings, the luxurious villas now crumble, but the roads still march armies on to face their foe – the Saxons are the enemy these days. Lancelot as a boy was brought from across the sea to the Mount, off the coast of the land now known as Cornwall, and there he was taught by the lady Nimue to become a guardian, to develop the skills of a knight, to nurture a bird of prey that fought against him every moment of the day, and it was there that he met Guinevere.

The story of Lancelot is a familiar one but it’s difficult to think of any author more gifted to retell his story than Giles Kristian, one of the most lyrical and poetic writers of historical fiction that you can read today. All of the story of Lancelot, Guinevere and Arthur – surely the most famous love triangle of myth and literature – can be found in these pages and, even though we know the outcome, it is given new life in Giles Kristian’s Lancelot.

The story is told from Lancelot’s point of view, from his earliest years and through disaster, grief and pain, through to his time on the Mount, where he first learned the meaning of rivalry and vengeance while learning the skills that would make him the greatest, most noble knight of King Arthur’s court. Arthur’s story is also given prominence. His rise to power through competition, war and cunning. The way he drew men to his side. The seeds of disaster that he sewed.

Lancelot is a story of war, the fight to become the king of kings in this newly abandoned land, but it also tells the tale of love, jealousy and desolation. Guinevere is a marvellous character in her own right, a warrior, fiercely independent and yet inevitably a pawn as all young noble girls would be, but also a beacon of inspiration.

Giles Kristian writes so beautifully. He brings these post-Roman years so vividly to life. I love the way in which the recent Roman past haunts this landscape. There is myth here, there is the Druid Merlin, and we’re reminded of many of the famous Arthurian legends, such as Excalibur, but Giles Kristian evokes a time rooted in history and in the land around us even now. I must admit that I’m not a fan of modern retellings of the Arthurian legend (possibly because I studied medieval Arthurian literature for my degree and loved it very much indeed) and so this isn’t a subject I find easy to read. But this is a Giles Kristian novel. I trust him and will always read everything he writes. His writing comes closest to the feeling, mood and beauty of the Old and Middle English verse that I love so much. It also feels much more like historical fiction than fantasy.

There is power here, deep expression and enormous feeling. I cried and cried as the story ended in the only way it could. If you haven’t read any of Giles Kristian’s novels before, do read this and then make sure that you read his stunning Viking series, Raven.

Other reviews
God of Vengeance (Rise of Sigurd 1)
Winter’s Fire (Rise of Sigurd 2)
Wings of the Storm (Rise of Sigurd 3)
Raven: Blood Eye; Raven: Sons of Thunder; Raven: Odin’s Wolves
The Terror: a short story
The Bleeding Land
Brothers’ Fury
With Wilbur Smith – Golden Lion

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Dunstan by Conn Iggulden

Michael Joseph | 2017 (4 May) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

Dunstan by Conn IgguldenIn 937, King Æthelstan must fight once more against the Vikings to preserve and protect the one English nation founded by his grandfather, King Alfred the Great. Fighting by his side is Dunstan, a young man from Glastonbury, who is himself on the verge of deciding what to do with his life. For much of his youth, Dunstan, with his younger brother Wulfric, was raised by the monks of Glastonbury but, whereas Wulfric chose the secular path of marriage, parenthood and business, it is not such a straightforward choice for Dunstan. Dunstan aspires. A gifted mason and engineer, Dunstan wants to build to the glory of God the greatest abbey church in the land. But almost as powerful as the pull of God is the appeal of a king’s patronage.

Dunstan is no ordinary man. More than a mason and architect with dreams of rebuilding Glastonbury Abbey, Dunstan is an ambitious and witty statesman. He is called from Glastonbury repeatedly to the royal court of Winchester where he serves an extraordinary dynasty of kings – brothers, nephews and grandsons. Under some Dunstan will flourish but others will drive him from the court, even from the country. Perhaps they can see deeper into his soul than Dunstan would like, because Dunstan is not entirely what he seems. Beneath the robes lies more than ambition – Dunstan is a man carried aloft by pride, ruthlessness, and worse.

Conn Iggulden is undoubtedly one of the finest writers of historical fiction – of any fiction – and I can’t sing his praises enough. In fact, it’s testament to my fondness for this author’s books and my trust in him that I didn’t hesitate to read Dunstan, a novel that is set in one of my least favourite periods of history. I studied Anglo-Saxon history and literature as part of my degree and it did an excellent job of killing any interest I might have had in reading historical fiction set during those years. But I knew that if anyone could bring the 10th century alive for me it would be Conn Iggulden. And I was right. Dunstan is an astonishing achievement, even for Conn Iggulden. Here is a period which has left relatively little evidence – documentary or archaeological – and yet it comes alive in these pages.

This is a novel driven by character. It’s not an action novel. There is an occasional battle but we don’t spend the book on the march with warriors or armies. Instead we spend time with one of the most fascinating historical figures of the age – Dunstan. A man who is presented here as both secular and religious, as an advisor to kings but also as a visionary. Beneath it all lies corruption and it is in discovering just how far Dunstan is prepared to descend that gives much of this glorious novel its tension and intrigue. Dunstan did not live a quiet life. He moved across the country, a country in recovery from years of war and under threat of more, where earls must live as nobles and not as rival kings, where the personality of the king is everything. Conn Iggulden presents us with a line of kings, some good, some evil, but they are all depicted as real people caught in a conflict. They have to protect England at all costs and yet they are only human. They love and hurt like everybody else. Dunstan is a witness to it all and he is closer than almost anyone to some of these kings. At one of these times of closeness, I wept. How Conn Iggulden can write!

The novel contrasts Dunstan and his brother Wulfric throughout and it is a deeply interesting and complex relationship. Dunstan undoubtedly has a vision of himself but a more realistic portrait might be the one perceived by Wulfric and other members of their family. Dunstan’s behaviour is at times shocking and disturbing. The novel is presented as Dunstan’s own chronicle, told in his own words, and so he doesn’t tell us everything. But there are gaps and those gaps shout out. We can be under no illusion about the lengths to which this man will go to achieve his glory on earth and in heaven. Our own complicated response to Dunstan is part of this novel’s pleasure.

Conn Iggulden wears his research lightly. It’s clear it’s there and a great deal of it but he uses it well, integrating the historical details thoroughly into the story. Glastonbury, Winchester, London, Rome and many other places are colourfully painted. There are sounds, smells and flavours of the past here. We experience life as a child in a monastery, as men and women of business in London, as a politician in Winchester, as a treasurer in the mints and mines of England. It is so completely engrossing. One aspect that I especially enjoyed is the use the Saxons made of the remains around them of the ancient Roman past. We see signs of that heritage everywhere.

Before reading this novel, I would not have imagined Dunstan as the obvious subject for a historical novel, especially one of this length. But that was before Conn Iggulden revealed him before my eyes and showed him to be the perfect subject for a novel on late Anglo-Saxon England. Dunstan is a novel rich in intrigue and drama, bringing to life the royal court as well as the country’s monasteries, cities and fields. And through it all we hear Dunstan’s voice, back from the dead, alive once more with a great story to tell, thanks to Conn Iggulden.

Other reviews
The Blood of Gods (Emperor V)
Stormbird (Wars of the Roses I)
Trinity (Wars of the Roses II)
Bloodline (Wars of the Roses III)
Ravenspur: Rise of the Tudors (Wars of the Roses IV)

Kin of Cain by Matthew Harffy – an extract

kin-of-cain-by-matthe-harrfyOn 1 March, Aria published Kin of Cain, a novella in Matthew Harffey’s Bernicia series set in Anglo-Saxon Britain during the first half of the 7th century. I’m delighted to take part in the celebratory blog tour. You’ll find an extract below but first here’s a little about what this Bernicia Tale is all about.

630 Ad. 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.

Reviews
The Serpent Sword
Blood and Blade

Extract

The scream silenced the mead hall like a slap to the face of a noisy child.

A chill ran through the throng. The brittle laughter died on lips that quickly twisted from smiles to scowls. The warm hubbub of moments before was shattered as easily as the thin skin of ice that formed on the puddles in the courtyard outside.

One of the hounds looked up from where it gnawed a bone by the hearth fire and whimpered.

Ælfhere, the scop, lowered his lyre, the last, interrupted notes, jangling in the air.

Octa set aside the mead horn he had been drinking from. His senses were dulled by the drink, but not enough that the small hairs on the back of his neck did not prickle with the sound of anguish that came from outside the hall. He turned to his friend, Bassus, who sat on his left. The huge warrior’s brow furrowed. Bassus met his gaze and opened his mouth, but before he could speak, another scream rent the chill night that smothered the great hall.

There were words in that scream.

“The night-walker! The sceadugenga brings death!”

Night-walker. Shadow-goer.

Octa felt bony fingers of terror scratch down his spine. He shuddered, hoping none of the other king’s warriors would notice. He had not long before joined the king’s gesithas and some of the men were wary of him, he knew.

They had feasted; eating, drinking and boasting. Trying to ignore the one who haunted the dark winter paths. They had prayed, some to the old gods, others to the king’s new Christ god, in the hope that the night devil would prove to be nothing more than a wild animal. A man could hunt an animal. Arrows would pierce a wolf or a bear’s flesh. But deep down they had all been expecting more screams in the night. More death stalking the shadows. Few of those in the hall had seen the remains of the people who had been slain by the beast, but the tales of the corpses, ripped and raw, bones smashed, limbs removed, had reached them all. This was not the work of any animal. This was something else.

Something evil.

At the head of the hall, the imposing figure of the king surged to his feet. Edwin, King of Deira and Bernicia, pointed to the end of the hall where the door wardens stood.

“Open the doors,” he said, his tone commanding.

The shorter of the two warriors who guarded the door hesitated. There was a murmur in the great hall. There were many present who did not wish to see the stout wooden doors opened to the night. For who knew what horrors dwelt there in the darkness?

“Lord?”

“You heard my words clearly,” Edwin said. “Open the doors.”

Another scream, closer now.

“I am king of the folk of these lands. I will not leave them outside in the dark while we feast in the fire-glow and warmth of my hall. Now, open the doors.”

“Wait, lord king,” Bassus’ rumbling voice stilled the door ward’s hand before he had lifted the bar. Edwin looked to his champion, arching an eyebrow at the interruption.

“You are right, of course,” said Bassus, “but let us arm ourselves first. We know nothing of what awaits us beyond the walls of Gefrin’s hall.”

Edwin nodded. The door wards quickly distributed the weapons that had been left in their care. A hall crammed with drunken warriors carrying swords and seaxes was not wise, hence the precaution, but now protection of the king and the hall was more important.

Octa retrieved his seax. The weapon had been a gift from his uncle Selwyn and the smooth antler handle was comforting. For an instant his mind was filled with memories of his home in Cantware. Edita and Rheda. His mother. Beobrand. Would he ever see them again? As usual when he thought of them, he felt a pang of regret, a twist of guilt at having abandoned them. But Bernicia was his home now. Edwin his king, and the men around him, his sword-brothers.

He readied himself with the rest of the men near the doors of the great hall of Gefrin. Women and children huddled at the far end of the room, with the priests and the queen.

The reek of fear-sweat filled the air as another wail came from just outside.

“Open the doors!” roared Edwin.

The door wardens lifted the bar and swung the doors open.

Cold night air cut into the hall’s muggy warmth like an icicle plunged into pliant flesh.

For a moment, nobody breathed. The hall was silent, all eyes staring into the utter blackness of the night.

Then, stepping out of the dark and into the frame of the doorway, came a vision from nightmare. Blood-slick and steaming, staggered a figure into the hall. The men stepped back, without thinking, wishing to be distanced from this ghoul. The women gasped. The dark-robed priest, Paulinus, raised the amulet he wore at his neck and recited words of magic in the secret tongue of the Christ followers.

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For other stops on the tour, please take a look at the poster below.

kin-of-cain-blog-tour

Guest post: The background for the Bernicia Chronicles by Matthew Harffy

To celebrate the publication by Aria earlier this month of Blood and Blade, the third novel in the Bernicia Chronicles, I’m delighted to host a guest post by its author Matthew Harffy. In it, Matthew presents his thoughts on the term ‘Dark Ages’ and discusses the background to the Chronicles, which are set during a fascinating yet enigmatic period of British history, a period that sets challenges all of its own to historical authors.

My reviews of The Serpent Sword and Blood and Blade

Blood and Blade by Matthew HarffyThe background for The Bernicia Chronicles – Where does the history come from?

People often ask me if it is difficult to write about a period that is often referred to as the Dark Ages. They ask about the sources I use and how I can know what it was like and what happened. The short answer is, I can’t know. Nobody can really know what it was like to live in seventh century Britain. But, we can guess and we can make informed judgements.

Most, if not all, historians and academics of the post-Roman period of British history deplore the term “Dark Ages”, feeling that it somehow denigrates the amazing feats of craftsmanship, art and learning of the time. But I think the term is right for many reasons. First, of course, it really would have been dark. Houses and halls were lit by a central hearth and maybe some rush lights or oil lamps. Candles were expensive and rare, and apart from the richest in society, the setting of the sun probably signalled bedtime.

The second reason I feel that the term is accurate is that there are very few first-hand written accounts from the period. The Germanic tribes that settled in Britain after the Romans left were not a literate people. They had written language, runes, and created great sagas, poems and riddles, but they rarely wrote these things down. Most of the Old English texts that have survived, such as Beowulf, were written centuries after the seventh century.

The third reason for the term, I think, is that archaeology from the time is so hard to come by. Of course, in such a densely populated island as Great Britain, there are many finds; especially of burials, which is where we obtain much of our knowledge of the people of the era. But the Anglo-Saxons built their houses in wood, and timber doesn’t last long when unattended in the British climate, so there are no buildings left for us to walk around, no crumbling castles, mosaic floors or huge walls to marvel at. We must rely on aerial photos and LIDAR data giving away the location of great royal halls, and then piece together what they may once have looked like.

The Serpent Sword by Matthew HarffyAgainst this backdrop of what I think of as Dark Age Britain, you could be forgiven for believing that putting together a story that is gripping and also factually accurate is nigh impossible. But what some see as a hindrance, I see as a blessing. The period gives me great freedom to craft plots without being constrained in the same way that I would be if I wrote about a later time when there were newspapers, written diaries and an almost infinite number of primary sources.

I have bookshelves full of history books about the Anglo-Saxons, their clothing, their weapons, their politics, their kings, and all manner of other subjects, but the two books I return to over and over are The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles and Bede’s History of the English Church and People. I read the events described within these tomes and try to find something that sparks my attention. For The Serpent Sword it was a mention of the year following the death of King Edwin. Bede described the year as “looked upon by all people as despicable and shameful”. He goes on to talk about the savagery of Cadwallon’s harrowing of Northumbria. I thought this would make the perfect backdrop for my hero’s story. In The Cross and the Curse, it was the battle of Heavenfield and the coming of the first Christian bishop from Iona that caught my eye. In Blood and Blade, the story of the protagonist, Beobrand, is told around two historical events – the marriage of Oswald to the daughter of King Cynegils of Wessex and the siege of Din Eidyn (Edinburgh).

The Cross and the CurseAs soon as I have the idea for the historical events, I read up as much as I can about them and then go about weaving a page-turning plot around them. I map out the novel as best I can, with the limited information available, and then I get writing, focusing much more on the story, than the history. I rely on my prior reading and immersion in the period for the day-to-day details, and I also do further research to fill in any gaps after completing the first draft.

Another area of research that really helps to bring the period to life is that of living history, or practical archaeology, as carried out by groups such as Wulfheodenas and Regia Anglorum. There is so much that has been learnt by these extremely dedicated and knowledgeable people who some might see as just wanting to dress up in chain mail and hit each other! But there is so much more to what they do than the battle re-enactments (though I am sure it is the fighting that attracts most spectators, and possibly most people to join the groups). They recreate all of the tools, clothing, armour and weaponry using only resources that were available to our Anglo-Saxon forebears. Regia Anglorum has even built a full-size hall at a site they own, called Wychurst. Talking to people who have helped forge tools and build halls, men and women who have worn kirtles, breeches and byrnies and stood in a shieldwall on a rainy Saturday afternoon, people who have not only read about these things, but actually lived them, is a wonderful way to get what all historical fiction writers strive for – authenticity.

Ultimately, I cannot know whether the stories I write have any bearing on what really happened. In fact, I would be very surprised if events were anything like I portray them in the Bernicia Chronicles. But I am not trying to explain Dark Age Britain’s history, I am seeking to entertain. All I want to do is to tell a good tale against a backdrop of a credible seventh century. What I am aiming for is that when a reader finishes one of my books, they feel they have seen into a lost world. Did it happen that way? Was it like that? Almost certainly not, but I hope readers go away thinking that it might have been.

Matthew HarffyAuthor info:
Matthew Harffy is the author of the Bernicia Chronicles, a series of novels set in seventh century Britain. The first of the series, The Serpent Sword, was published by Aria/Head of Zeus on 1st June 2016. The sequel, The Cross and The Curse was released on 1st August 2016. Book three, Blood and Blade, was released on 1st December 2016.

Book info and links:
The Serpent Sword, The Cross and the Curse and Blood and Blade are available on Amazon, Kobo, Google Play, and all good online bookstores. Killer of Kings and Kin of Cain are also available for pre-order.

Contact links
Website: www.matthewharffy.com
Twitter: @MatthewHarffy
Facebook: MatthewHarffyAuthor

For other stops on the blog tour, please take a look at the poster below.

Blood and Blade blog tour poster

Blood and Blade by Matthew Harffy

Aria | 2016 (1 December) | Review copy | Buy the book

Blood and Blade by Matthew HarffyWith 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!

Other review
The Serpent Sword