I’ve been hugely remiss in my book reviews in the last year. So as my act of contrition, I’m giving you a three-for-one and reviewing Matthew Harffy’s excellent, shieldwall-busting series, The Bernicia Chronicles.
The Bernicia Chronicles encompasses the familiar world of post-Roman Britain, replete with war-ravaged kingdoms and piecemeal domains. Savaged by warbands and raiders, rife with violence, alliances, shifting allegiances, and nascent Christianity, the series dives deep into the chaos of 633 AD and brutal life in Northumbria. To some writers this might seem to be a difficult hill to climb, given the number of excellent authors that have books set in post-Roman / pre-1066-and-all-that Britain but Harffy makes it look easy. Take a fascinating era, great characters, solid plots and mix it with a heady amount of sword-swinging carnage.
THE SERPENT SWORD is the first book in the series, introducing the main character Beobrand, a young man thrust into a bloody quest for vengeance when his older brother is murdered. The first book lays out a gripping and compelling tale that sees Beobrand develop from inexperienced newcomer into a capable, and at times, berserker-fueled, warrior.
Harffy weaves a solid and believable story and Beobrand is a great character, one whose imperfections and temper often lead him into potentially dark choices that many fictional characters dare not go but Harffy captures his moral dilemmas with both verve and humanity. The landscape and the world of Northhumbria are drawn out with care, as are the terrifically written battle and fight sequences. Harffy does a good job drawing the reader into Beobrand’s world and making the story organic to the history and the setting.
THE CURSE & THE CROSS, the second book in the series, picks up Beobrand as an established warrior, now a respected (and feared) leader of his own band of warriors. Beobrand has to learn how to manage the leadership of his small community, balance his service to his overlord King Oswald, his own uncertain temper and violent tendencies, and fulfil his obligations to home, family and personal honour. Beobrand is a character who's flaws writ large at times, giving him unexpected nuance in what could easily have been a very formulaic tale and stereotypical character. Harffy deftly avoids this trap, making the reader interested in delving deeper into Beobrand’s problems and story and giving his character a strong arc and development.
Harffy continues in this book with solid and excellent historical world-building,weaving the rise of Christianity and the slow erosion of paganism into the bleak landscapes of Northumbria, bringing its often unpredictable inhabitants to vivid life.
BLOOD & BLADE is the third installment in the series and continues building on the solid narrative foundation Harffy has constructed in the first two books. Beobrand has grown as a character – in both his traits and his role. When Oswald, King of Northhumbria cements an alliance with Wessex by marriage, Beobrand is tasked with what seems like the simple responsibility to escort his new Queen back to Bebbanburg. For Beobrand, nothing is ever simple or how it seems and he soon finds himself entangled in a dangerous situation.
Rife with battle, characters and superlatively immersed in the era, Harffy has, as with the previous books, presented a great story that will have you turning pages late into the night. I lost sleep on this one.
In conclusion, if you are looking for a great set of books to take you out of the present, and set you loose on the cold and brutal hills of Northhumbria, The Bernicia Chronicles are the way to go. Excellent characters that develop from book to book in depth, sophistication and emotional impact, a terrific historical setting and tautly written prose that rings like swords on steel.
Go get them!