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.

Preview – Kin of Cain

Matthew Harffy has written three books in the The Bernicia Chronicles series. They are about Beobrand a young thegn in 7th century Northumbria. You can  read my review of the second in the series, The Cross and the Curse here. The fourth instalment will be published later this year.

kin-of-cainKin of Cain is a novella (86 pages), to be published on 1st March. It is a gobbet of flesh tossed by the author to keep his readers quiet. I had already ordered it, but was offered a ARC for review. It is a prequel to the main series, set several years earlier. Beobrand’s elder brother Octa, is new to the household of King Edwin and desperate to prove himself.

As usual with this author, it is straight into the action. A cheerful winter’s night in the mead hall is interrupted by a scream. It is a simple tale, one of the oldest. An invincible monster roams the land. The king sends his best warriors to destroy it. Octa is pleased to be chosen as one of them, he soon changes his mind. The trail takes them through a mysterious, mist covered marsh, to towering cliffs and thundering seas. Will they catch the monster? Is it an animal, or something else. Can it be killed? Who will die and who survive?

The only fault, for me, is the use of the term “slaughter-dew”, an Old English  kenning. It suggests a bath oil for shield maidens. But with so much blood spilt, another word is definitely needed. It sprinkles on the ground, it drips from torn flesh and smears the blades of weapons.

I loved the twist at the end, where connections are made and loose ends tied.

This is a great book, to be consumed on a winter’s evening in your favourite chair, perhaps with a glass of red. A distraction from the never-ending news of pontificating politicians.

Better still, huddle close to the hearth in your lord’s hall. Sip your mead as the scop recites this song of heroes.

But beware. What is that screaming, out in the winter darkness?

My first #HistFic Conference #HNSOxford16

Apologies for the strange title – I’ve been doing rather a lot of Tweeting recently!

Last week I promised to write about the Historical Novel Society conference in Oxford. With getting on for 300 attendees: writers, readers and others interested in writing historical novels, most of whom probably write blogs, why write another? Why read another?

Because I promised, and I always keep my promises and also because everyone’s experience will be different. This is mine.

I arrived at St Anne’s College about 4.30 Friday afternoon, pushed out of a car further down the road (where were you supposed to park?) in a torrential downpour. It didn’t seem like an auspicious start. A change of clothes and a cup of coffee later and I was ready to cross the road to the Andrew Wiles Building. Of course I was early, but there seemed to be no-one about – eventually I realised everything was happening downstairs. I collected my badge, picked out a goody bag and settled down to rummage through it. I discovered that others were more interested in the weight of the bag, rather than the contents. They were those who had travelled from afar – I was amazed to discover how many had come from the U.S. It put my one and a half hour drive in perspective.

Goody Bags

Plenty of Goody Bags – which to pick?

Then it was time for the official Welcome and “The Big House Story” – a conversation with Fay Weldon and Jo Baker. This was an interesting discussion about writing from the point of view of servants, such as Longbourn, Jo’s book inspired by Pride and Prejudice. I think there might have been a problem with Fay Weldon’s microphone as I had difficulty hearing her. I should say here that apart from this, the sound was excellent in the main hall and the other venues.

This was followed by Wine and Canapés. I wish I had stopped chatting long enough to taste more of the enticing canapés. We were turned out at 8.30, so I retired to the pub opposite. Shared a table with three Americans and two other Brits. Interesting that I was the only one writing about British history.

Fay Weldon and Jo Baker discuss servants.

Fay Weldon and Jo Baker discuss servants.

I slept very well in my comfortable garret (up three flights of stairs) and was practically first in line for breakfast (very good). First on for Saturday was a Panel Session “The Next Big Thing in Historical Fiction.” To which the answer is “Nobody knows.” Agents are looking for one thing, publishers another; you must please the marketing department and attract the book shops. The Tudor era is overloaded, but a WW2 saga might be popular.

Straight after this was the session I was looking forward to: “Building a Shield Wall.”, run by Paula Lofting and other members of Regia Anglorum. The first thing we were told was that the Angl0-Saxons didn’t drink mead. So that’s half my book out the window! We found out a lot about the clothing – especially how difficult it is to get into a mail shirt, especially in front of a large audience in a very small room. We discovered the difference between round and kite shaped shields and the advantages, and disadvantages, of fighting on foot and on horseback. They moved out into the atrium to demonstrate the actual setting up of a shield wall, causing consternation to other delegates, who had their coffee break shattered by the cry of Ut! Ut! Ut!

(There is some film and a much shorter post about the conference on Ruth Downie’s blog)

So that's what the Anglo-Saxons used for their Powerpoint presentations

So that’s what the Anglo-Saxons used for their Powerpoint presentations!

Saxon warrior brought to his knees by lady in sensible shoes (and an axe)

Saxon warrior brought to his knees by lady in sensible shoes (and an axe)

Shield Wall

Ut! Ut! Ut!

After all that excitement we returned to the main hall for the Keynote address by Melvyn Bragg. His latest book, “Now Is The Time” is about the Peasants Revolt and he talked about the difference between Historical Fact, which you have to obey, and Historical Fiction, which is the bits that you don’t know. You can make it up but must stick to the spirit of the character. If you research enough around the events, you should be able to recreate what they might have said. Bought the book afterwards (although service at the bookstall was a bit slow.) and got it signed.

Melvyn Bragg making a point.

Melvyn Bragg making a point.

After that was lunch, sandwiches and fruit – very nice sliced pineapple, followed by the presentation of the awards.

Presentation to Joint winner of the HNA Indie Award, Lucienne Boyce

Presentation to Joint winner of the HNA Indie Award 2016, Lucienne Boyce

Straight after that was another panel, Battle Scenes: Guts, gore and glory. No, not a replay of the awards, but a talk by authors famous for writing dramatic and life-like scenes of battle. It was rather skewed towards the Romans – anyone would have thought that the Romans fought a lot of battles! There was much discussion of classical sources. Why did neither of the Anglo-Saxon supporters mention the Battle of Maldon! I’m not sure I learned much (about writing battle scenes) but it was an entertaining session.

Justin Hill, Matthew Harffy, Harry Sidebottom, Douglas Jackson and Simon Scarrow talk Battles

Justin Hill, Matthew Harffy, Harry Sidebottom, Douglas Jackson and Simon Scarrow talk Battles

Time for a cup of coffee. Biscuits were advertised but I didn’t see them – just as well. Then it was into another workshop: Creating Fictional Historical Characters, with Jean Fullerton. This was in the same small room that had been used for the Shield Wall re-enactors. I don’t know if someone had misjudged the numbers, but there was even less space. More people kept appearing and tables were shoved up and chairs brought in from elsewhere. We learned the does and don’ts of creating heroes and villains. I must have been getting tired as all I remember was the warning – “Don’t kill the kittens!” your reader will never forgive you.

Exactly!

Exactly!

The final session was back in the main hall Kate Williams, Margaret George and Manda Scott on “Faith and Morality in historical fiction and biography.” Like the last session, this was  about thinking about the differences between how people lived and believed in earlier times and how we think about things nowadays. There was a discussion  about how you can never get the truth of any event, however modern. We can only do the best we can with what we have. This was followed by an Introduction to HNSUS17 to be held in Portland, Oregon on June 22nd-24th, 2017. We were then allowed to go, to prepare for the Gala Dinner.

Is it Dinner Time yet?

Is it Dinner Time yet?

Back in my room at St Anne’s, I lay exhausted on the bed. Could I take any more? Yes I could. After a wash and brush up I descended the three flights of concrete stairs in my posh dress and glittery shoes. It was a short walk to the Dining Hall. It seemed a long time since breakfast that morning. Music was playing and wine bottles were on the tables. Here and there were delegates dressed in historical costume, ready for the Costume Pageant. I was joined by Clare Lehovsky whom I had met on an Arvon course at The Hurst, a year ago. I had met other friends from that course during the conference, so it was something of a reunion. An American gentleman sat opposite, Christopher Cevasco. We discussed our books and discovered he was also writing about the 10th century. I don’t know if there were any more in the room, not many I suspect. Also sitting opposite was Richard Buxton, a Welshman writing about the U.S. Confused and I hadn’t even had a drink – yet.

Chris and Richard. Managed to include the menu as well

Chris and Richard. Managed to include the menu as well

Queuing up for the Costume Pageant. Clare in white top - 1920s

Queuing up for the Costume Pageant. Clare in white top – 1920s

C C Humphreys reading from his book "Fire" I've already bought two books about 1666, do I need another?

C C Humphreys reading from his book “Fire” I’ve already bought two books about 1666, do I need another?

The highlight of the evening was an invitation (after much nagging) to handle a Seax.

Thank You Matthew (Come up to my room and I'll show you my Seax) Harffy

Thank You, Matthew “Come up to my room and I’ll show you my Seax” Harffy

I was up bright and early the next morning for my Full English breakfast, ready for the final day of the conference. There was to be a lot of running back and forth today. I had two pitch sessions booked. I will draw a veil over them, except to say that they have given me a lot to think about.

I just managed to get to the “Streets through the Ages” Panel just before it started.  Here we were given descriptions of life in different eras. Gordon Jackson spoke about Romans, Carol McGrath about Medieval – 14th century (not Anglo-Saxon I’m afraid) Jenny Barden took us back to the Elizabethan period and Charlotte was not left much time for the 17th century. We were running late and everyone wanted to get to the main hall for the talk by Tracy Chevalier.

Tracy Chevalier addressing a packed Hall

Tracy Chevalier addressing a packed Hall

It was strange to discover that such and English seeming author as Tracy Chevalier spoke with an American accent. Although she has lived here a long time but hasn’t lost it. She talked about how distancing yourself in history makes it easier to write, although you have to spend a lot of time on research. If you write about the modern-day everyone asks if it’s autobiographical! That said, we heard something about a book she has been working on recently: a re-working of Othello set in a 1970s school playground.

Unfortunately I had to miss the questions part of this talk, but made it to the Session on “Time Slip; Time Travel” This is a genre which I enjoy reading. I might have a go at it myself, sometime. Anna Belfrage and Christina Courtenay explained about the difference between Time Slip, in which the characters do not actually physically travel back in time and Time Travel, when they do. You have to think carefully about the method of travel, how to emphasise the differences between your two eras. We finished with a competition. Who could think of the best method of time travel – the winner was someone who suggested shoes.

I didn’t make the HistFictionalist Challenge – too busy talking again. Missed the wrap up as well. I think my sense of time was getting adrift! I had some lunch, drifted around for a bit and then left. I didn’t want to leave. I walked into the centre of Oxford and as I returned to pick up my lift, got lost. I eventually found my way back, tired and foot worn. I had to return to real life.

So, what did I think of my first HNA Conference? I enjoyed it immensely – so much to do, so many people to meet: old friends, new friends, twitter friends. Sorry if I haven’t mentioned you in this blog, but you are in my thoughts.

Would I go again? Like a shot. Perhaps not next year, but when it is held in the UK again.

 

Researching Ango-Saxons in Northumbria

Today is a bank holiday (in some places) so I thought I would talk about a recent holiday, or research trip as writers call them.

When I first started writing I made up the places where events took place, I knew exactly what they looked like. Unfortunately I then tried to find the location “in real life”. It made for some interesting holidays and was surprisingly successful. However I am growing up and have started to become more organised. I am visiting before I write – but how useful is it?

I have set part of my second book in Northumberland, at Bebbenburh (Bamburgh). The first problem was that I wanted to visit in autumn, but my husband insisted we go in August. Actually August is autumn according to the Anglo-Saxon calendar, but I was thinking howling winds and lashing rain. Perhaps I would be lucky with the weather – I wasn’t. We had the most pleasant weather imaginable; warm and sunny.

We had booked four nights at the Blue Bell Hotel in Belford. It was very comfortable and the food was good. We didn’t even need a clock as the village church was next door and struck the hour, every hour, even though the night.

Blue Bell Hotel, Belford

Blue Bell Hotel, Belford

View from our room.

View from our room.

We had planned a walk for the next day, but it was a bit cloudy. Since the forecast was for sun later, we decided to postpone the walk and drove the few miles to Bamburgh. We parked in the (free) car park and walked up to the entrance. We had explored the castle some years ago, so we intended an external circuit, for me to soak up the atmosphere. We were early and I don’t think it had opened anyway. We peered through gates until we came to a dead-end. We found a path down to the beach and the tide was out. I had a nice paddle and took lots of photos of the castle silhouetted against the dramatic sky. I started planning a scene of my hero galloping along the wide sands, with his dog. First mistake – it seems that the wide sandy beach wasn’t there at the time – scratch that scene!

Bamburgh Castle from Beach plus dog

Bamburgh Castle from Beach plus dog

Farne Islands from Bamburgh Beach

Farne Islands from Bamburgh Beach

Lindesfarne from Bamburgh Beach

Lindisfarne from Bamburgh Beach

Of course I already knew that the castle would not have looked like it does now. It would have been smaller with a wooden Hall and other buildings surrounded by a wooden palisade. At least that is how it was originally built, but might the walls have been replaced by stone by Byrhtnoth’s time (the tenth century)? More research needed! I was sure where the entrance had been. Anyone who has read Matthew Harffy’s book The Serpent Sword (and if you haven’t, why not? Buy it here for only 99p) will remember the opening scene of Beobrand’s arrival by ship (somewhere near the bouncy castle) and entry up the narrow steps – in wind and rain, of course! Interestingly, when I re-read that piece, I noticed that neither the width of the beach nor the composition of the walls is mentioned. A good lesson. If you don’t know the answer, leave it to your readers to imagine it – if they get it wrong it is their fault, not yours!

Steps to entrance of Bamburgh Castle

Steps to entrance of Bamburgh Castle

After a coffee and a toasted teacake at the Copper Kettle Tearoom in the village, we visited the local church, originally founded by St Aiden in 635, the first church to be built in Northumbria. The reredos, which dates from the end of the 19th century contains images of many Northumbrian saints.

St Aiden's Church, Bamburgh

St Aiden’s Church, Bamburgh

Reredos in St Aidens Church

Reredos in St Aiden’s Church

As we left Bamburgh the sun came out. We headed inland to start our planned walk. We had found a suitable walk online to St Cuthbert’s Cave and round the surrounding area. It included part of St Cuthbert’s Way, a long distance footpath from Melrose to Lindisfarne marking events in the life of St Cuthbert.

The cave is supposed to be the place where monks carrying the body of the saint rested on their journey from Lindisfarne Abbey after it was raided by Vikings in 875. The bones eventually arrived in Durham several years later.

Climbing the hill towards St Cuthberts Cave. Looking west towards the Cheviots (not the sheep!)

Climbing the hill towards St Cuthbert’s Cave. Looking west towards the Cheviots (not the sheep!)

St Cuthbert's Cave

St Cuthbert’s Cave

Owned by the National Trust - spot the error!

Owned by the National Trust – spot the error!

"Pass through this gate and then the gate on your left" Would you? We did - quickly.

“Pass through this gate and then the gate on your left” Would you? We did – quickly.

The next field had cows and calves. We walked very slowly, under intense observation.

The next field had cows and calves. We walked very slowly, under intense observation.

The views were worth it. Linisfarne in the distance

The views were worth it, though. Lindisfarne in the distance

After the walk, we returned to our hotel. It had been a long day and there would be another tomorrow.

To be continued

Thegn in a reasonably priced car.

I recently read an interesting article about Anglo-Saxon swords by Matthew (get your seax out) Harffy. You can read it here.

A patten-welded sword?

A pattern-welded sword?

One of the points made was that a sword could be compared with a modern man (It’s always a man) boasting about his car. I noticed a similar analogy on a recent TV programme about Versailles. I can’t remember what was compared with an expensive sports car – it might have been a piece of lace. This is one of those common comparisons; the size of Wales, a football pitch or a double-decker bus.

It got me thinking. If an expensive, pattern-welded can be compared to a posh car, what about the man who owned it? What is the modern equivalent of the Anglo-Saxon warrior?

I decided that it must be a professional football player. Both have to be young and fit. They have little in the way of brains and their working life is short. I know little about cars (or footballers) but the top flight international/premier league players with the exotic cars (see here for examples) are the top Ealdormen. Their weapon/car is impractical for daily use but stands out from the crowd and costs a lot to buy. Further down the league, those with a modest, but still decent car, would have had an ordinary, cheaper sword or seax. Your ordinary, amateur or local league player would be a spear carrier and drive a second-hand hatchback. I see the men whose chosen weapon was the axe as Rugby players, perhaps driving something off-road. After all, weren’t Land Rover sponsors of the recent Rugby World Cup.

Before I go further down the sporting road (Tennis players as archers?) let’s think about the women (or WAGS). Things haven’t changed much there over the years, they have always been judged by the money their partner earns. This usually means cloths and jewellery. The more riches won by your warrior, the better quality gown you wore. Silk was the ultimate achievement and equates to designer dresses. I’m not sure that high heeled shoes were important to the Anglo-Saxon woman though. Or handbags?

Finally, who held the power in Anglo-Saxon England? The king of course and his relatives. They demonstrate their status by property. An impressive hall/castle to house their retinue, a feast/garden party to feed them. Mead v A cup of tea and cake?

And then there was the church. At that time, usually the only people able to read and write. The great bishops and abbots, building churches and monasteries and advising the king. The ordinary priest or monk would be the equivalent of teachers, writers, artists, vowed to poverty. Their superiors, surely, must be the modern businessmen and politicians.  Ostensibly subject to the same vow of poverty, but dealing in power and large sums of money. The ones not caught fiddling their expenses were turned into saints.

I think I have followed this tread almost to breaking point, but if you have any suggestions, let me know. I might mention the best in a future post.

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?