Book Review – The Cross and the Curse

Last Thursday I gave a talk to a local WI group. I told them much more than they probably wanted to know about the history of the area – I probably mentioned the Anglo Saxons, once or twice. The next day I had a slight sore throat. I had obviously talked too much. By Saturday morning I knew – I had caught the virus/whatever that seemed to have had infected so many since Christmas. I lost my appetite (a real sign of illness) and hunkered down for the duration.

I didn’t feel so bad that I needed to spend all day in bed. What could I do? Read and write, of course.

I had homework to do for my writing group and plenty of time to get on with my book. 5000 words in four days may not sound much, but for me it’s a lot. An additional bonus, my protagonist was wounded and with a fever – we suffered together. Whether it will be readable when I come to check it is another matter.

The book I read was The Cross and The Curse, Book 2 of the Bernicia Chronicles by Matthew Harffy. I have promised a review. Here it is.

When I read the first book in the series, The Serpent Sword, last year, I was very impressed. So much so that I immediately looked for a sequel – there wasn’t one, at least not then. The next book came out last week on 22nd January. It arrived on my Kindle that morning. I was excited. I had read some of the previews, but I was also apprehensive. Would it be as good as I hoped? I can tell you now – It is better.

Perhaps it was just me, but the book seemed to start slowly. If you can call a battle between thousands of men, in the dark, in a torrential thunder storm, slow. And a marathon gallop on a powerful black stallion. I know that stallion well – I spent many hours on his back when I was young (in my mind!) I now know his name, Sceadugenga.

In the first book we got to know Beobrand as he tried to find his way in a strange land, far from his home. In this book, as a reward for his part in the battle he becomes a thegn of Bernicia and is given a home (as well as the horse.) He soon finds that with power comes responsibility. Arriving in his new home, blood is spilt causing a feud with his new neighbours. The story appears to pause as he explores his new position, but underneath, the tension rises. Even the annual Blotmonath sacrifice is fraught – will the gods accept the sacrifice or is Beobrand’s family doomed? Just as he is needed at home, he is called by the King. However much he wants to stay, he must obey. A warrior must always serve his Lord.

I must admit that I find Sunniva, by now Beoband’s wife, a bit annoying, always hanging round his neck in tears when he has to leave. I feel like giving her a good shake, he has enough to deal with without all that. I was near tears myself though, later in the book. Beoband has always felt cursed. On the long journey across the winter mountains, he meets a witch, who knows more about him than he expects, and curses him properly. If you want to find out how to rack up the tension, just read the journey to the witch’s cave.

By this point I was caught. I had to read on. Through the blood and fire, death and betrayals. At one point I had to unpeel my fingers from my Kindle, I was gripping it so hard my knuckles were white. By the end Beobrand must make a decision. Does he kill the man he has vowed to kill or does he hold back to preserve the peace? Is he a mindless killing machine or can he become a proper lord to his own men?

This is not just Beobrand’s story, but that of other men, character’s as vividly realised as him. It is the story of the battle between the old gods and the new Christ God. Of the new king, Oswald trying to control the mixed population of his kingdom. It is also the story of the ordinary man and woman, trying to survive in this violent time.

Now. How long do I have to wait for the next book?

How I started to write.

I discovered recently that I have been blogging for four years – it was my blogoversary (if that’s the right word). Obviously not this particular blog. This one has only been going five months and this is only my ninth post.

I started, on 3rd January 2012, with a blog about my family history research. Especially my One Name Study of the Madder surname and in particular about Captain John Madder. John Madder was hanged as a pirate in 1705. I have discovered rather a lot about him. And his brother, George. And his daughter Isabella. In fact I will be posting about my latest finds on that subject on the original blog  shortly.

So why am I writing a historical novel about an Anglo-Saxon, Byrhtnoth? Why aren’t I writing about my endlessly fascinating pirate? The thing is – that is what I planned.

I wanted to write a (non-fiction) book about John Madder. It was hard work and I set up the blog to practice writing, as well as keep tabs on my research. I was not a writer, never thought about being a writer. I’m afraid I’m not one of these writers who started scribbling stories in my cradle. Reading, yes. Writing, no.

Anyway, three years ago, at Christmas 2012, I had a bright idea. I had been spending so much time with John Madder he had become one of the family. I would talk to him – sometimes he would reply, but only when we were alone. I would write a story for the readers of my blog. I thought about it for a long time, then tried to write it down. It just wouldn’t work. Why not? I was confused. I had been writing all these chatty blog posts, about 40 in that first year, why couldn’t I write fiction rather than fact?

Then I picked up the spring term brochure for the Percival Guildhouse, a local adult education centre. This is the home of the Family History and Local History Groups I belong to. I have helped to teach family history classes there and sometimes attended painting classes. A class was advertised “Writing Fiction”. There was space on it, so I signed up. I have been attending ever since.

I wrote in an earlier post about some of the exercises we did recently but I remember exactly how I found Byrhtnoth – or perhaps he found me!

There was an exercise to describe a landscape we knew, zoom in closer, then closer still. For some reason I chose Maldon and the modern statue of Byrhtnoth – you can see it in the picture at the top of this blog.

A bit later, it might have been the following week, we talked about the characters in well-known books. Our homework was to take a character and write a scene of their life outside the book. Byrhtnoth was still hanging about, so I wrote about him on the eve of the Battle of Maldon (Yes, I know it’s a poem rather than a book, but our tutor allows us a lot of leeway, so long as we write something!)

I had started wondering where this person had come from, what made him into the man in the poem. There was another exercise. Imagine a door, describe the door, send someone through the door and describe what’s on the other side. If you read my earlier post The Prologue you will recognise this scene – it is the start of my book. (If you haven’t read that post – not many people did, or if they did they didn’t take part in the poll – I hope you enjoy it.) I now have nearly 70,000 words and (I hope) am getting towards the end. I am starting to think about a sequel. I’ve come a long way from that first attempt at writing.

And if you’re wondering, I did eventually write that problematical story – it appeared on the original blog the following Christmas (2013). If you want to read it, you can find it here

Perhaps, one day, it will be the start of another book. After all John Madder still talks to me. He asks why I am neglecting him for that young Anglo-Saxon boy!