Tag Archives: Historical fiction

Stasi Wolf by David Young

Zaffre | 2017 (9 February) | 402p | Review copy | Buy the book

Stasi Wolf by David YoungStasi Wolf is the second novel to feature East German police detective Oberleutenant Karin Müller, taking place a few months after the events of Stasi Child. Both novels stand alone very well but, as Stasi Wolf begins, life has changed for Karin Müller. And so this review assumes you’ve read Stasi Child.

It is 1975 in East Berlin and the career of police officer Oberleutenant Karin Müller has taken quite a knock since the conclusion of her last case. It’s never a good idea to get on the wrong side of the Stasi. But someone it seems wants to give her a second chance. To the south west of Berlin lies Halle-Neustadt, a brand new model town of apartment blocks, all built to the most modern specifications to house worthy citizens. But not all is perfect in this communist paradise. Newborn twins have been stolen from the town’s hospital and one has been found dead. The Stasi are determined that the crime should be solved with the utmost tact and secrecy – nothing must be allowed to tarnish the reputation of Halle-Neustadt. Karin Müller is given the case and, with little choice in the matter, packs up her life and heads south.

Halle-Neustadt is no ordinary town. Its streets have no names, it buildings are just numbered and many of them are empty and silent, the perfect place to hide a crime. Prevented from making public searches or appeals for information, Müller is well aware of the difficulty she faces as the clock ticks away and the surviving twin remains lost. And it is only a matter of time before more children will need to be found.

Stasi Child was such a fine debut novel from David Young, introducing one of the most fascinating and original detectives in contemporary crime fiction. Incredible as it seems, Stasi Wolf is even better, taking us back into the dangerous, chilly setting of the DDR, where spies hide among neighbours and Stasi eyes keep watch. But what makes Karin Müller particularly fascinating is her relationship to the state. She believes in communism and, despite her conflict and unease with the Stasi, she still believes this society can work. Even though she has seen it at its worst.

In this new case, removed from East Berlin, we learn more of the ways in which the Stasi affect so many aspects of society but driving this excellent novel on is the mystery itself. Ultimately, this is a novel about child snatching and that is something that goes beyond politics. But while there are themes here that affect people wherever they are from, in whatever period, East Germany in the mid 1970s is not a place that can be disentangled from its government, just as it cannot forget its past and the legacy of war and defeat.

Stasi Wolf is utterly steeped in atmosphere. Even when its weather is hot, the story still chills, the menace remains sinister. David Young immerses us in its time and place but the characterisation is equally successful. Karin Müller stands out but there are others, too, that you won’t forget. Müller’s personal life is an important feature of this novel and it winds through the story, adding further mystery. Pieces of narrative move between the past and present, hinting at other troubled lives. It is totally gripping. This is not a novel that’s easy to put down, and its conclusion will have you on the edge of your seat.

Stasi Wolf is a hugely accomplished novel, scoring high as both historical fiction and crime fiction. I love both genres and so I couldn’t have been more entertained by it. This is a series with legs and we’re very lucky to have it.

You can read another review at Novel Heights.

Incendium by A.D. Swanston

Bantam Press | 2017 (23 February) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

Incendium by A.D. SwanstonIt is 1572 and Elizabethan England is threatened as never before. Mary Queen of Scots might be locked away in Sheffield Castle but she remains the focus for Catholic plotters, their fire fuelled by the Pope’s support and by bloody violence done to Protestant Huguenots in Paris and across France. Spanish and French ships are poised to invade, to steal the crown from the heretic queen. Assassins hide in London’s crowded streets. As the summer heat intensifies and the fear of plague stirs, London, England and Elizabeth herself look ready to ignite and explode. And there is competition to be the one to win the eternal glory of lighting that fuse.

Dr Christopher Radcliff is a lawyer in the service of Elizabeth’s longterm favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Leicester more than anyone wants to protect Elizabeth, and Radcliff, a man with agents hidden across the city, is just the person to help him. There are rumours of a new plot, codenamed ‘Incendium’, and its roots are believed to lie in Paris. But people in London are already starting to disappear and be killed, Radcliff’s own agents among them. It’s soon clear that this is no ordinary plot, its conspirators cunning and powerful, their ambition limitless. And they are one step ahead of Radcliff, at least.

Incendium is the first in a new historical series by A.D. Swanston, the author of the marvellous Thomas Hill trilogy set during the Civil War and Restoration (review of The King’s Return). Incendium is every bit as good if not better. The early 1570s were a fascinating time in English history – the persecutions and executions of Bloody Mary were still within recent memory while the overt threat of the Armada was still some time off. While Elizabeth wished to be tolerant of her subjects’ private religious beliefs, in contrast to her sister Mary, this moderation was now severely tested. She only had to look across the channel to the horrors committed in France in 1572 – events which are portrayed here – to know that she and her kingdom were in real personal danger. Elizabeth’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham is away in Paris so Leicester tries to do what he can but he is out of his depth and it shows.

Radcliff is a wonderful character, resourceful and intelligent and he needs to be. He’s also no fool and is well aware that Leicester could get him killed. He’s also been changed by what he’s seen overseas. It haunts him. But Radcliff is aided by some hugely likeable individuals, such as his mistress Katherine Allington, and Ell, a whore who spies for Radcliff but can also make him laugh. Then there’s Rose, Radcliff’s elderly housekeeper, who does what she can to keep her master fed and watered, even when her own roof is rained down in a storm. And there are many more who come and go through these pages.

This is a novel full of character and life and I loved its portrait of Elizabethan London, in the heat and later in the snow. We’re taken into all sorts of places, ranging from palaces to prisons, and all are vividly painted.

Incendium faces head on the ugliness of Elizabethan spying and counter-spying – it could result in brutal murder on one side and the atrocious horror of legal torture and execution on the other. Neither Radcliff and Leicester care for torture but Leicester is unhappily aware that, while he could not carry it out himself, he must ask others to do it for him. Elizabeth’s protection is all that matters. Swanston also doesn’t shy away from the Catholic slaughter of the Huguenots in Paris. I’ve always been fascinated by these appalling events and Incendium is built around them.

Incendium perfectly combines history and fiction, historical figures and those that aren’t, and together they paint such a colourful and compelling picture of Elizabethan London at a crucial time for its Queen and her servants. As a historical thriller it worked perfectly. I loved every page. I can’t wait to meet Christopher Radcliff again.

Other posts
The King’s Return
Spies and spying in the Civil War – a guest post by Andrew Swanston

Viper’s Blood by David Gilman (Master of War 4)

Head of Zeus | 2017 (9 February) | 494p | Review copy | Buy the book

Viper's Blood by David GilmanViper’s Blood is the fourth novel in David Gilman’s powerful and uncompromising chronicle of the Hundred Years War. If you haven’t read the others in the series, beginning with Master of War, then tread no further with this review. Much has happened to our hero Thomas Blackmore in the years since the Battle of Crécy in 1346 and so spoilers for the earlier novels are inevitable.

It is 1360 and although Sir Thomas Blackmore and his men remain in the military service of Florence they are currently fighting alongside Edward the Prince of Wales, and Black Prince, and his father, the mighty Edward III, in France, a country that has good cause to fear the knights and long bow men of its greatest enemy. France’s king has been caught and is held to ransom in England. The dauphin, weak and uncertain, relies on his counsellor Simon Bucy for advice, as the English threaten the very walls of Paris itself. But Bucy has more on his mind than the Wars – he is intent on the destruction of one man, Thomas Blackmore, the nemesis of France, and he will stop at nothing in his desire to see him dead. And then one day Bucy sees a way. A peace treaty between France and England gives him the chance to throw Blackmore into the lap of the Englishman’s greatest enemies, a nest of vipers if ever there was one.

Thomas is not the man he once was. Grief has done that to him. But with his son Henry by his side, Thomas is intent on wreaking vengeance on the men who almost destroyed his life and that of his son. He has loyal men around him, many have been with Thomas since Crécy, and their support is absolute. Just as well because they have quite a time in front of them as they follow their king’s orders on a journey of battles and hardship that will take them across northern France to Paris and then to the Alps and northern Italy. And everywhere they go they will find conflict, division, distrust, murder and bloody violence. For this is the age of war and plague. Chivalry has died.

Viper’s Blood is a compelling and dark chronicle of war, lightened only briefly by the camaraderie and affection between soldiers. But this is now not really a war of pitched battles. Those are in the past and still to come. Instead, there are skirmishes, the seizure of towns, the slaughter of communities, the scramble for land and roads. And when Thomas and his mean leave France for Italy they find no peace. The cities there are constantly at war with one another, the situation merely aggravated by the neighbouring Hundred Years War.

Thomas and his men are little different from the other routiers who terrorise Europe at this time, despite his rules forbidding rape and needless slaughter. But be under no illusion – Thomas is as violent as any and we see his ruthlessness on more than one occasion. And we might warm to his men but there are sudden, shocking reminders – one in particular – that they are no different violence, particularly towards women, lies only just under the surface.

This is the man’s world of war but women suffer in it perhaps more than most and I must admit to struggling with the novel’s representation of women. They don’t come out of it well – whores, witches, rape victims, greedy thieves or innocent princesses seems to sum them up. I’m fully aware that this is a historical novel about medieval warfare and, as such, I don’t expect women to play much of a part, but I wish I had a pound for every reference to a woman’s breasts, clearly her most notable feature. I really felt the loss of Blackstone’s wife in this novel – she’s missed.

Viper’s Blood tells the story of a journey from fight to fight, covering much of France and northern Italy, following Thomas Blackstone’s quest for vengeance. There are moments of extreme action and violence, offset by times of hardship on the road. I really enjoyed the depictions of Paris and Milan – 14th-century Europe is described so well, with its walled towns hiding from mercenaries and roaming armies, vulnerable to disease and greed. I also liked the camaraderie between Thomas and his men, especially Killbere. I did feel a great deal for Thomas’s son Henry whose life seems terribly harsh and yet he never complains. Thomas can be a hard man to like, particularly in his behaviour towards Henry. Even his memories of his wife seem chilled. But Thomas is a damaged man, albeit a remarkable warrior.

Viper’s Blood is an exciting, bloody and well-written tale of Europe at a time of terrible crisis. Surely, there can have been few worse times in history in which to live than the mid 14th century? It’s harrowing at times, chilly in others, and, perhaps, is a little too long, but it is certainly a fine addition to a series that continues to bring these cruel years to life in such rich and meticulous detail.

Other reviews
Master of War
Defiant Unto Death
Gate of War and interview

Corpus by Rory Clements

Zaffre | 2017 (26 January) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

Corpus by Rory ClementsIt is the end of November in 1936 and the people of Britain are being kept in ignorance about the crisis facing the country’s monarchy. But all is about to be revealed, thanks to the independent America press and King Edward VIII himself who is determined to put life with the woman he loves above duty to his country. The upper reaches of society and government are in turmoil and matters aren’t helped by the conflict between fascist and communist which has spread beyond Germany to Spain and elsewhere, including Britain. It’s the time of rallies and demonstrations, calls to arms, idealism and cynicism, spies and treachery. The time is ripe for murder.

Professor Tom Wilde teaches history at Cambridge University. His specialism is Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s spymaster who was responsible for bringing about the fall of Elizabeth’s greatest rival, Mary Queen of Scots. Wilde knows better than most the potential dangers of the time in which he finds himself living. His students are divided between the left and the right. He can only urge them to consider the significance of evidence and prejudice in our understanding of the past and the present.

Wilde himself will need all his skill to help Lydia, the young poet who lives next door to him. Her schoolfriend Nancy has suddenly died, apparently of a heroin overdose, and then the parents of another friend have been found butchered in their home. When other individuals emerge with an interest in the murders, Wilde searches for connections and these take him into the dangerous and dark heart of Europe’s turmoil in these grim cold days of the winter of 1936.

Rory Clements is familiar to many for his wonderful Elizabethan mystery series featuring the spy John Shakespeare, last seen in Holy Spy. In many ways, Corpus would seem to be entirely different but it is a stroke of genius to create a new character, Tom Wilde, who is so fascinated by and knowledgeable in John Shakespeare’s world, who demonstrates the constant timeless themes of history which endlessly recur. The events of 1936 are relevant to the 1580s just as they are also relevant to today. This perspective illuminates Corpus and adds such depth to its events and attitudes. Rory Clements is a fine writer of such clever novels and in Tom Wilde he has created a character to do him proud, every bit as much as John Shakespeare.

You need to have your wits about you when you read Corpus. This is a very clever book, rich in intrigue and deceptions, with an army of characters to keep track of. I had to do a fair amount of looking backwards into the novel to remember who certain people were, particularly during the early part of the book as we move from one location to another – Cambridge University, country homes, London hotels and more. But all becomes much clearer as the novel continues and the rewards for the reader’s attention are high.

The storyline is marvellous! Its complexity is very satisfying to unravel and it captures so much of the sinister world of 1936 Europe. Hitler and Stalin walk in the shadows of this novel. Their reach is almost limitless and for many in this book their appeal is intoxicating and powerful. But the novel never forgets how much is at stake – there are frequent reminders of the bloody war in Spain, the King’s abdication promises chaos in Britain and the violence of the novel increases as several of the characters emerge from their disguises. There is a social divide here, too, with many types of people represented – the upper classes, politicians, immigrants, academics, miners – but some things unite them, including murder.

Rory Clements writes as brilliantly as he plots and this is a novel steeped in atmosphere, menace and history. The fact that we know what happened after 1936 adds a certain tension and also means that we know how believable and plausible the events described here are.

If I had to find fault with Corpus, I’d be out of luck. This is a standout historical novel and a gripping spy thriller. Clearly Rory Clements can turn his attention to any period of history he likes and in it he will find gold.

Other review
Holy Spy

The Mask of Command by Ian Ross

Head of Zeus | 2017 (12 January) | Review copy | Buy the book

The Mask of Command by Ian RossIt is 317 AD and the Roman Empire continues to be divided, East from West. It is more important than ever to protect the Empire’s boundaries from invasion. The Germanic tribes are rumbling with discontent once more and so Constantine sends his young illegitimate son, and his apparent heir, Crispus to the Rhine. With him goes Aurelius Castus as commander of his forces. The situation has been inflamed by the recent murder of another Roman commander while conducting the Emperor’s business across the river. Castus has his suspicions that the same fate might be planned for him. But these are dangerous times. The intrigue of Rome has a long reach and it has Crispus in its sights. So, not only must Castus work to keep the peace, he must also protect Crispus, fight to keep himself alive and, more than anything else, look after his young son who he has had to bring with him to this most uneasy frontier.

Not knowing who he can trust, Castus wages a series of campaigns along the Rhine frontier, working where he can to make friendships among the local tribes. But he continually finds himself undermined by the actions of the Governor and his officials. It isn’t long before this begins to take the form of more open attacks against Castus himself. But the dangers on the Roman side almost fade into insignificance once Castus crosses the frontier and finds himself part of a deadly war, on water and on land.

The Mask of Command is the fourth novel in Ian Ross’s excellent Twilight of Rome series, which focuses on a rather overlooked period of Roman history, the early 4th century. The age of Constantine is, though, a fascinating one, not least for the rise of ideas associated with the emperor’s favour for the new religion of Christianity. The Empire is changing. Its armies are also changed. There is very little ‘Roman’ about some of the men who take up arms to fight for the empire. And the way that Rome must deal with those on its borders is also changing. But, within this grand picture, this series focuses on the actions of one man, Castus, to fight for what he believes.

When we first met Castus a few books ago, he was regarded as a ‘knucklehead’ by his military superiors and was seen as little more than a brave and dependable fighting machine. That Castus is no more. He might not have had much of an education but his loyalty and courage have won him imperial patronage and added to that bravery is decency. Castus is a good man. He has responsibilities now, too. His young son is defenceless and has given this grizzly soldier something well worth fighting for. It’s softening him, even if this leaves him a little more vulnerable. Leopards cannot totally change their spots and Castus continues to make decisions that might not be his to make. But in this time and place, where it is so difficult to know who to trust, perhaps that is exactly what he should be doing.

There are some fantastic battle sequences in The Mask of Command – the battles on sea and river are especially thrilling and absolutely riveting to read. There is a new force to reckon with – Saxon pirates – and they are terrifying. Castus is caught between a rock and a hard place. He wants to do the decent thing for the tribes. He wants to be an honest and reliable intermediary between the Germanic tribes and Rome but this is an impossibility thanks to Roman treachery. The situation escalates and the final third of this novel is next to impossible to put down as everything blows up in Castus’s face.

I love the mix of Castus’s own story and development with that of the wider picture of a Roman empire in crisis. We see less of Constantine and imperial figures in this novel but their influence is most strongly felt. When all’s said and done, The Mask of Command is a corking story, thoroughly exciting and with some of the best fighting sequences I’ve read in Roman military fiction. I’m such a fan of this series but The Mask of Command could well be the best so far – it’s a fine piece of writing by Ian Ross, backed up by his obviously detailed knowledge of the period and its military background, and it belts along. But we never lose sight of Castus the man and it is Castus who drives this series on. I can’t wait to meet him again.

I must also mention, as with other Head of Zeus hardbacks, The Mask of Command is a fine looking book. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – I do love a hardback with a ribbon.

Other reviews

War at the Edge of the World

Swords Around the Throne

Battle for Rome with interview

Arminius: The Limits of Empire by Robert Fabbri

Corvus | 2017 (5 January) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

Arminius by Robert FabbriAlmost thirty years have passed since Rome’s greatest military disaster – the slaughter of three Roman legions by Arminius in the Teutoburg Forest, deep in Germanic territory on the other side of the Rhine. The deaths of thousands of men is outweighed by the shame and dishonour Rome suffered by the loss of the legions’ standards, their eagles, and also by the fact that Arminius had been a man deeply trusted by the highest levels of Roman society. The commander of the legions, Varus, had trusted Arminius with his life and that was exactly what Arminius – or Erminatz as he was known among his Germanic Cherusci tribe – intended and that was to be prove Varus’s greatest mistake.

Thumelicatz paid the price for his father’s, Arminius’s, ambition. Sold into slavery, he has spent years fighting as a gladiator in the amphitheatre of Ravenna. But now, after five years, he has won his wooden sword of freedom and, at last, is free to return across the Rhine to his home – after he has completed some bloody business of his own, that is. Some time later, Thumerlicatz is visited in his Cherusci home by a small party of Romans. THey are on the trail of the last of the missing eagles. Two have been recovered but one is still lost to Rome. Thumerlicatz has his own reasons for listening to their arguments as to why he should help them with their mission. And it provides him with the perfect opportunity to tell these Romans the story of Arminius, as set down in scrolls in his own words. There are people among that company of listeners who have their own pieces of the tale to add and the resulting story transports them all back across the years to those terrifying four days when the forests of Germania resounded with the battle cries of the tribal warriors and the screams of the doomed Romans.

Robert Fabbri is well-known for his superb Vespasian series of novels but with Arminius he presents a stand alone novel that in many ways represents a sidestep from Rome’s Fallen Eagle, the fourth of the Vespasian novels. It depicts events that had a profound impact on Rome during the 1st century AD and beyond, events which helped shape the empire and define its northern borders for decades. Rather unusually, after a thrilling prologue that depicts Thumelicatz in the Ravenna amphitheatre, much of the novel takes place during one day, when Thumelicatz has his slaves read his father’s scrolls to his Roman guests. We are told the story of Arminius’s life, from his childhood and early life in Rome as almost part of the Imperial family, to the Battle of Teutoburg Forest and beyond, complemented by interjections from those who listen to the tale. The audience includes people who were there at the events described and this adds other layers, as well as immediacy, to the unfolding extraordinary story.

Although the action is largely narrated to us, rather than presented in a traditional novelised fashion, it still has the power to grip us, the reader, just as much as it does the listeners in Thumelicatz’s company. It does take a few pages to get used to but the story of Arminius is an incredible one, even before the battle takes place. His relationship with the Imperial family of Augustus and Livia and their adopted sons is absolutely fascinating and, for me, was the highlight of the novel. The shaping of Arminius is a compelling subject and it includes a whole range of other themes, including the rights and wrongs of empire, Roman militarism and tactics, the challenge of establishing borders, and the relationship of Rome to the conquered. But it also raises as many themes about the Germanic tribes. Their behaviour and attitudes towards one another seems just as aggressive and unstable as their attitudes towards Rome. And their barbarism and cruelty is no less effective and shocking than Rome’s. In fact, after reading this, at least as it’s presented here, I’d say it’s even more so.

Because the novel mostly comprises Arminius’s own words, he is the dominant character and the most developed. We are given enjoyable glimpses of others, notably Varus and Lucius, but this is Arminius’s tale. The second half of the novel was, for me, not always an easy read. The battle was a horrendous one. It doesn’t take much to imagine the terror that the Romans must have felt before most of them suffered an agonising death. The ones who died in battle were the lucky ones and Robert Fabbri doesn’t spare us the horrific violence that was done to these men. I must admit that this was too much for me and it actually gave me nightmares. This attests to the power of Fabbri’s prose (he is a wonderful writer) but I struggled through some of these sections. But Fabbri captures brilliantly and powerfully the sheer awfulness of this prolongued Roman agony in the forest. I particularly relished all of the detail of the planning that went into it as Arminius works to pull his grand scheme together. This is so well described by the author.

Robert Fabbri is a master of 1st-century Rome. His depth of knowledge and insight into the imperial military and political machinery of the time shines through his Vespasian series and also illuminates Arminius. The tantalising glimpses of Augustus, Livia and Tiberius really stand out, just as they do in the Vespasian novels. This, though, is Arminius’s story, explored in depth and with feeling, and the result is an astonishing tale that I don’t think will ever lose its fascination and is here treated with great skill. If you have any interest at all in Roman military historical fiction you will not want to miss this depiction of the most infamous battle of the age.

Other reviews
Vespasian I: Tribune of Rome
Vespasian II: Rome’s Executioner
Vespasian III: False God of Rome
Vespasian IV: Rome’s Fallen Eagle
Vespasian V: Masters of Rome
Vespasian VI: Rome’s Lost Son
Vespasian VII: The Furies of Rome

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