Review – Killer of Kings

I enjoy writing reviews of Matthew Harffy’s books. It is such an easy job with writing this good.

Killer of Kings is the fourth book in the Bernicia Chronicles series and Beobrand, recovered from his injuries, is on the road again. This time he is travelling to East Anglia. King Oswald has asked him to accompany a group of monks taking a present to King Sigeberht. They come across a village in flames. Beobrand tries to help, but he is outside his own king’s lands and is forced to leave. He rescues one girl, but already he suffers the guilt of leaving innocent people to die.

Reaching East Anglia they find the king has retired to a monastery and his relative Ecgric is king. Neither of them seem interested in defending their land from attack from King Penda’s Mercia and Beobrand realises he has been sent to support the East Anglian army.

The armies meet in a long and bloody battle. Beobrand narrowly escapes, but without his men and his horse. With an old friend he travels to Kent, meeting relatives for the first time since he left for Bernicia. In previous books one phrase has recurred – his mother’s dying words “You are not your father’s son”. Beobrand discovers the truth, but it is even worse than he suspected.

On the journey home he attempts to fulfil his vow to kill the man who defiled and killed his wife. Nothing goes as planned.

Meanwhile, back at Ubbanford, Reaghan worries, surrounded by  people who hate or despise her, what will happen to her if Beobrand doesn’t return?

Like the previous books, this volume is filled with blood and guts. The reader can have fun counting the different synonyms for blood, although I sometimes find it annoying.

Beobrand is developing as a character. He worries that he is unable to deal with the memories of the death he deals his enemies. The only way he seems to find peace is by more killing, but even revenge cannot sooth his soul. He feels the loss of his hearth companions deeply, they died because of him, he should not have survived. With the loss of his horse as well, I am starting to wonder if his mind can survive this sort of pressure. Where can the author take his character next? It will be interesting to find out.

I started reading the book one evening, I could have finished that night, but I forced myself to stop. I had things to do the next day, but I wanted to prolong the enjoyment. After all, I’ll have to wait many months to read the next instalment, to find out if Beobrand can find peace.

Definitely another five stars.

Book Review – Dunstan

In the year 937, King Æthelstan, grandson of Alfred the Great, readies himself to throw a great spear into the north. His dream of a kingdom of all England will stand or fall on one field and the passage of a single day.

At his side is Dunstan of Glastonbury, full of ambition and wit, perhaps enough to damn his soul. His talents will take him from the villages of Wessex to the royal court, to the hills of Rome – from exile to exaltation.

When I noticed this book, by Conn Iggulden, was to be published on 4th May, I was worried. I have written a book and am looking for a publisher. It starts in 937, Dunstan appears in it, although he is not the main character. How would it affect my own book? I had to check out the opposition.

As you can see from the blurb, the book is about Dunstan, Abbot of Glastonbury, Bishop of Worcester and London, ultimately Archbishop of Canterbury – and Saint. He lived through the period when England moved from a collection of minor kingdoms to the country it is today. Some might say this process began with Alfred and completed by his grandson, Æthelstan. Dunstan played his part by reforming the church.

It takes a strong man to do this and the Dunstan we see in this book was certainly strong. I was reminded of the Thomas Cromwell we have met in the books by Hilary Mantel. Both are men from the lower orders. Both achieve high position by their own intelligence and hard work. Both are unpleasant characters who tell their own stories. Mantel’s Cromwell, however nasty, is understandable, even, at times, sympathetic, that is the genius of her books. In this book Dunstan is just plain nasty.

It starts, not in 937, but three years earlier, as the thirteen year old Dunstan is taken to Glastonbury by his elderly father. At the same time his younger brother Wulfric also enters the monastery, but far from looking after him, Dunstan despises his brother. Why? Because he thinks he is weak and Dunstan considers anyone weaker than him is there to be used. Despite Wulfric’s later business success, which mystifies Dunstan, he must drop everything to do his brother’s bidding.

Dunstan rises. He tells us it is because he is lucky to be in the right place at the right time, but we are left to imagine the things he does not mention. The book covers his life and the reigns of seven kings. Dunstan is not interested in battles or even politics, just in how much money he can raise to complete his projects, the Abbey at Glastonbury and Canterbury Cathedral, which he believes will be his legacy. He was an interesting man, with a great interest in science and engineering, never happier than when working in his forge. It should make him more human, but he is too arrogant of his abilities. Everyone is there to serve him. One sentence sums up his attitude: “I have always forgiven my enemies, but only when they have been punished.”

As every hero needs a flaw to make him human;  a monster needs a spark of humanity to gain the reader’s sympathy. The Dunstan revealed in the book has none.

I should rejoice that a ray of light has been shone upon this period. The late tenth century has been comparatively neglected, perhaps because of the lack of major battles, and Dunstan’s is a story that has been waiting to be told. I have read a lot of books set in the Anglo-Saxon period. Most, good or bad, give a flavour of life at that time, this one doesn’t. It could almost have been set in any period.

The author prides himself on the depth of his research; the first person he thanks is his researcher. So why are there so many errors? At one point someone arrived in a pony and trap – yes, there were horses and various types of cart but the expression suggests something other than this period. Elsewhere, someone is searching the crowded streets of Winchester for a girl. He cannot spot her bonnet. Bonnet? Is this a time slip novel and Jane Austin has found her way into the tenth century? Later someone, still in Winchester, looked “up the high street to the cathedral spire in the distance, dominating the city.” Winchester does not have a spire today and, I must admit, I had to look it up, doesn’t appear to ever had one.

I was particularly interested in one event – the death of King Edmund. It forms an important part in my own book. It is described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

A.D. 946. This year King Edmund died, on St. Augustine’s mass
day. That was widely known, how he ended his days: — that Leof
stabbed him at Pucklechurch.

There are not many exact dates, or even places, for events that can be identified during this period. St Augustine’s day is 26th May and Pucklechurch is easily found. So why, in this book, does this important event take place on All Hallows Eve (31st October) and at Winchester? There seems to be no reason to change it. Dunstan then says that Eadred was crowned in May 946 (it was August 16th, that year). If such facts, that can easily be checked, are incorrect, how can we trust the rest of the story?

I suppose the ordinary reader will not care about these details. It covers most of the events of St Dunstan’s life. It gives plausible explanations for the “miracles” performed by him. It has the usual replacement of personal names by more “understandable” versions, although I was a bit distracted by “Beatrice” – apparently a version was around at the time, but, to me, it sounds anachronistic. Apart from the errors, it is well written. At 480 pages I finished it in two days.

Two days when I could have been writing. I managed just over 4k words this week before I switched to reading about Dunstan.

Am I being unfair, because it doesn’t fit with “my” version of the period? I hope not, but I was glad Byrhtnoth wasn’t mentioned in this book – favourably or otherwise. I’m sure that if I didn’t know the period, I would have liked the book. I remember reading and enjoying the author’s Emperor series about Julius Caesar and then reading several of the Conqueror series. I didn’t read them all, I’m not sure why, perhaps I wasn’t interested enough in Genghis Khan etc.

If you want an interesting read about a neglected historical figure, buy the book. If you know anything about Anglo-Saxon history avoid it.

Description – Embellishment or Info-Dump?

How much description do you add to your story?

Do you go into lyrical descriptions of the world surrounding your characters: that fantastic sunset, every detail of that market scene, the name of every bird that sings in the forest as your hero passes on his horse, or every blow in the battle and every drop of blood that falls?

Or is it  ‘Just the facts, ma’am’?

I have been catching up on some reading. I have read two books, both long, both include a lot of description, but with very different results. Both are set in the Anglo-Saxon period.

The first is “Under Lynden Church” by Lindsay Jacob. I am not sure where I first noticed it, but it was £2.64 on Kindle and looked interesting.

It is partly set in modern times. An archaeologist finds a grave, deep below a village church, not far from Cambridge. It is connected, in a way not immediately apparent, to events in the ninth century. It is the time of the Danish invasion, but King Alfred is barely mentioned. This is East Anglia. King Edmund (later St Edmund) is dead. The last of the Wuffingas fights against the Danes, as well as the neighbouring King of Mercia.

Most of the action is set in Ely and the fens, as is some of my book. It had all the signs of being interesting. None of the characters appear to be real people but that is what writers of historical fiction do (all fiction for that matter). They take a situation that might have happened and work it into a story. Nothing wrong with that. This story was good, I wanted to enjoy it, but…

It was hard going, I seemed to be reading it very slowly – it was on my Kindle and the percentage counter never seemed to move. That was when I realised it was 545 pages. I struggled on. There is a lot of description of people struggling through the fens – I felt I was with them every step of the way. I soon wondered if I should give up, but a book has to be exceptionally bad for me to give up. I would go halfway then decide whether to finish it. At that point I was interested enough to carry on and eventually finished it.

I was disappointed, because it could have been so much better. The author had found a good plot, she had obviously done a lot of research, but it was if she had then decided that was it and published everything, in the rough order of the plot, dropping in the “modern” part of the story at random. With a good editor it would have been half the length and a decent read.

For example, the archaeologist meets someone in a pub and there are several pages of the man’s family history, from birth, through school, various jobs, his relationship with his wife, her affair with another man and how they now enjoy sitting at home watching television. It’s not even revealed by conversation and is completely unnecessary.

On the other hand, characters are neglected, ignored for long periods of time, then reappear. Sometimes they have changed, with no explanation of why. Others remain the same throughout, never evolving from their first appearance to the end. I remember a scene of people returning from a battle. A woman is upset, her lover has died. It stopped me in my tracks – her lover? I scrolled back a couple of pages (yes, just a couple) She had arrived at the camp. They must have met because he was there, but there was no mention of a meeting, much less becoming lovers. Why waste page after interminable page of tramping through mud and then throw away such character development. If you want to keep reading, want to find out what happens to the characters, you need to know them.

The characters were too alike. The men were all weak, downtrodden, miserable – apart from the nasty bullies. The women were all heroic – the main character (Emma?) leads the army. Is she the woman in the coffin? Perhaps not, because there are other woman just as worthy. I lost track of all the coffins and burials at the end.Was it the end, I wasn’t sure, and by that time I just didn’t care.

After that, I had to read something else. as you need a glass of water after a large, slightly dry sandwich, all bread and little filling.

Recently I was in the local library. I went there to do some local history research, looking up someone in a directory. To get to the local studies area you have to pass lots of books (they still have a few despite the effort nowadays to fill libraries with computer screens!). I saw a couple of interesting books and checked them out.

This was how I used to read – go to the library – take out as many books as I could – read them – return them – take out more. I sometimes wonder how many books I’ve read over the years, whole series when I found one and liked it. Attracted by a title, not many had attractive covers when I was young, not in the adult section anyway.

The book I took this time was one I had seen mentioned, a review in the paper? A blog or website? Somewhere I had noticed it. This was another Anglo-Saxon book, but set much earlier, in the seventh century, in Northumbria. A popular time and place. The book was “Hild” by Nicola Griffith. It was also long, 640 pages in the Kindle version and costing £6.99. The library book was 625 words and of course, free.

Hild is the story of St Hilda of Whitby. Her early life, from the age of three to… I’m not sure of a her age at the end, late teens? Long before she became a nun and abbess.

Hild was the niece of King Edwin. Her mother brings her up as a seer, she becomes adviser to the king, but it is a precarious position. What will happen to her if she fails to tell him what will happen? There is nothing supernatural about this. An intelligent girl, she trains herself to watch everything and everyone. She roams the countryside, watching the animals, learning about plants, witnessing the weather. As part of the court she watches people, what they think, how they react, how to behave and how to influence them.

The royal court moves regularly. She learns about the different places and watches as they change. Over the years religion changes. Paulinus comes to the north with King Edwin’s new wife. He is determined to convert the pagans to Christianity – his brand of Christianity. He hates the Celtic monks and tries to destroy them. All the time Hild watches, judging, is this new religion good or bad? How will it affect the Kingdom?

Apart from politics, Hild works with the other royal women, in the weaving shed and dairy. With her mother and the queen she helps to set up trading links, both within the north but further afield.

She grows tall, she trains as a warrior, she carries a seax. People fear her because they do not understand her. Her fear is losing the people she loves. She fights to protect them – sometimes violently.

There is much description, but nowhere is it superfluous. The reader stands at Hild’s shoulder, learning with her. The places and countryside, the details of everyday life, what women do, and men. I learned so much of life at that time. I think I will have to buy a copy, just for reference.

But as well as useful, the descriptions are beautiful, like poetry. It was a long book, but I didn’t want it to end.

So, two books. One has taught me how not to write, the other an inspiration to aspire to.

Better get writing again.

Belated Memories of a Pirate – and other deaths.

Every year I remember the Eleventh of April. This year I forgot – well I remembered late in the day – too late to blog about it.

It is the anniversary of the death of John Madder, in 1705. He was a real person, but not a real pirate, that was the excuse they gave to kill him.

I remember him because of his name, which I used to share.
I remember him because of his tragic death, with its connections to the Union, or not, between England and Scotland.
And now I remember him as the person who started me writing. Read about that in a previous post. I could so easily have written my novel about him – perhaps, sometime, I will.

The reason I forgot to remember was because I was too busy remembering.

In another life, I am responsible for running a website remembering men who died in the First World War. We publish a biography of each man from our local war memorial on the centenary of his death (there are over four hundred). I don’t do it all myself, we have volunteers, although not as many as I’d like. But I am the coordinator. I read them through, checking for mistakes then publish them on the blog. Last weekend was the centenary of the Battle of Arras – the anniversary was in the news, mainly about the Canadians at Vimy Ridge. But from our town, in the centre of England, six men died on Sunday 9th April 1917, two more on Monday and another two yesterday. Those last two were in the same regiment, the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. I have been reading the war diaries – they are not named, just included in the anonymous list of casualties.

Total casualties for the period 9th to 21st Incl.
Killed: 2 Officers,  43 Other Ranks (includes 10 died of wounds since)
Wounded and missing: 1 Officer, 0 Other Ranks
Wounded:  5 Officers,  173 Other Ranks
Missing: 0 Officers, 33 Other Ranks
Missing believed wounded: 0 Officers, 1 Other Ranks.

Most casualties were from enemy shelling as they assembled before the attack.

So many men, so many stories. Perhaps I should be writing about that period, I have learned so much about it. Many writers, better than me, have done just that.

I started thinking about Byrhtnoth. What would he think about the four year battle that was the First World War? The idea would excite him – he loves to fight. But the reality would shock him. For him, war is man to man, fighting in the shield wall. Not sheltering in a trench from overhead bombardment. We tend to think that the Dark Ages (or Early Middle Ages, as they are now called.) was a violent time. If you read some authors it was all battles! But the battles were short, afterwards the survivors went home, harvested their crops, had feasts and told stories round the hearth.

Our job, as writers, particularly of Historical Fiction, is an act of remembrance. We remember the men and woman, famous or invisible. We bring them alive, tell their stories, so they will be remembered.

So I will not say that this week I have done no writing. I have been writing biographies, in my own act of remembrance.

If you do not know the man (or woman), how can you remember him?

A rose by any other name

After last weeks post about violence, I thought I’d talk about something more gentle.

A garden full of primroses, and leaks

A garden full of primroses, and leeks

No, not flowers, although that is a subject that causes a lot of problems in historical fiction. To take a seasonal example, did they have snowdrops in the 10th century? Perhaps not. What about primroses? They are a common wildflower, judging by the way they spring up everywhere in my garden, so yes,  perhaps. I have a horror of committing a sin like the one I read in one book. Rhododendrons used as Christmas decorations, in Scotland, in – well, lets just say it was later than 1066 but definitely not modern. It spoilt the whole book for me.

To return to the subject, I want to talk about names. I’m sure I’ve mentioned elsewhere about the “foreignness” of Anglo-Saxon names. All those Ethels and Elfs. The question that concerns me now is who has a name and who doesn’t. In general it is straight forward – protagonist, antagonist, friends; good and bad. Love interest, if any. Occasional dogs and horses, they all have names. The servant who steps forward to hold the horse, the neighbour in the mead hall who makes a comment and is never heard from again, the random Viking whose only part is to get killed, preferably more creatively than the last. None of them need to have names.

It’s the characters in between that are the problem. The ones that interact for a scene and never appear again. If you give them all names:
1. Your reader might be looking out for them to reappear.
2. Your limited stock of Anglo-Saxon names diminishes.

I encountered the problem this week. I won’t go into details, but I had a boy, a girl, the girl’s father and the man the girl was supposed to marry. I’m sure most people could invent a useful scene from those characters, probably the same one. I didn’t give them names, but then I tied myself in knots with the he said, she said, the father told the other man. Not to mention the characters who were present who did have names! And the main character didn’t speak the language and was having it all translated for him.

I do make things difficult for myself.

For the time being they remain nameless. It is the first draft, after all, They might all get cut from the final version. Or one or more of them might reappear in a later book and I will have to explain why no-one knows their name. Isn’t writing fun?

As you can probably guess, I’m in a cheerful mood. I wrote 6,288 words this week. Not quite up to target, but good enough considering there were two days I didn’t write anything.

The total now is just over 52k, so I think I can say that I am officially more than halfway through.

Finally, book one, now officially called “Bright Sword” has been sent for a final edit. And, as I write, my cover is being designed.

I am excited. My bank account, on the other hand, doesn’t know what hit it.

A Proper Writer?

I am starting to feel like a proper writer. This week was a milestone. Another writer – a proper author, with a proper publisher, contacted me to ask if I would like an advance review copy of his new novella. I mentioned, last week, that I found it convenient to read shorter books to fit in the writing. It was a book that I wanted to read and had already ordered, so of course I said yes.

I have not found time to look at it yet, but look out for my review in a few days. Of course if it’s a load of rubbish, I won’t mention it again. But I’m sure it won’t be.

We had a hard disc failure this week which delayed things. Not the main computer, but an external drive where I keep copies of all my photographs. Luckily everything was backed up elsewhere, but there was a lot of installing a new drive and copying everything back. Not my job, apart from checking everything was back to normal, but it still took up time. No writing was lost!

Another reason for thinking myself a writer, is the fact that the writing is spilling over into real life. Or perhaps my inability to keep it in its place is a sign that I am not a proper writer. Yesterday afternoon I was writing, trying to reach this week’s target. I had to stop to watch the rugby. I hadn’t bothered with the Italy/Ireland match – who would? (Apologies to any Irish or Italian readers) but I had to see the Wales/England match. As I watched, my mind got distracted with what I should have been writing. I was imagining Byrhtnoth swinging an axe, about to kill a really nasty character, when I realised a man in a white shirt was hurtling towards the try line. I shouted. I shouted very loudly. My husband was nearly blown off the sofa! I don’t know where it came from – Byrhtnoth I suppose – he would be an England supporter. Anyway, with his help England beat the nasty little Welsh. (whoops just lost my Welsh readers.)

On this subject, rugby, not the Welsh, I find it useful for finding inspiration for battles. Surely a rugby scrum is the nearest you can get to an Anglo-Saxon shield wall? It also helps with characters. I know what Byrhtnoth looks like. For a long time I searched for a man I could point to and say – that is him – the actor that would play him in the film version, whatever.

I found him on the rugby pitch. Unfortunately he plays for Scotland – not too bad – I support them if they are not playing England.

Richie Gray is the right height (6ft 9in), his hair is bleached rather than natural blond and his eyes, as far as I can tell are not blue, but he has the right physical look.

I’d better go now, the match is about to start.

Finally, word count this week: 5,836 plus 1004 exercise makes 6,840. Not quite 7,000 but near enough.

 

Mead and Poetry

I’m sure you have been wondering how my mead making is getting on, thanks for asking. Here is a quick update.

It had stopped bubbling and started to settle. It’s not completely clear, it may clear in time or it may not, but it was time to rack it. This means I had to siphon off the liquid from the dregs.

This is one of the best parts of the process. To get the wine flowing from one container to another, I had to suck it through. I’m sure there are other ways to do it, but this gives me my first opportunity to taste it. A good rule of thumb is: if I don’t immediately spit it out, its OK.

I can report that I didn’t spit it out! It tasted quite dry, which is a good sign. It means that the sugar from the pears and all that honey has turned to alcohol – the main purpose of the exercise. The taste will improve with age and it might need racking again.

Mead ready for racking

Mead ready for racking

 

It has turned a beautiful colour, a pinkish gold. It is similar to the yellow of the autumn leaves that are everywhere at the moment.

The Anglo-Saxons had a word for his special colour. It is fealo or fallow, the shade of autumn leaves, gold weapons and turbulent winter waves. It also gives its name to the Fallow Deer.

For more about the word see this wonderful post by Eleanor Parker ( @ClerkofOxford ). It includes translations of texts about Anglo-Saxon Autumns, including one of my favourite lines:

Beam sceal on eorðan
leafum liþan; leomu gnornian.

A tree on the earth must
lose its leaves; the branches mourn.

It says everything there is to say about Autumn.

While writing this, a memory nagged at me. I went and checked the original text of the Battle of Maldon (together with a translation – I wish I could read Old English, but I think I am too old to learn it now.)

Here is the original:

Feoll þa to foldan fealohilte swurd
ne mihte he gehealdan heardne mece,
wæpnes wealdan.

It comes in the final moments of Byrhtnoth’s life. He draws his sword, but is injured and:

Fell then to earth the fallow-hilted sword,
Nor could he hold the hard brand
Or wield his weapon.

It is the same word, fealo.

The colour of my mead, the colour of the autumn leaves that have been so spectacular this year, and the colour of Byrjtnoth’s sword hilt, at the moment that he fell.

Never let anyone tell you that this was the Dark Ages. It was full of Colour and Poetry.

And mourning for the end of life.

The Garden in Autumn.

The Garden in Autumn.