It’s been an exciting few days for readers of Matthew Harffy’s Bernicia Chronicles, his series set in 7th-century Britain. The fourth book, Killer of Kings, came out in paperback on 2 May, 2019, the same day that its sequel, Warrior of Woden, was published. A week later, Beobrand returns in a “stunning new instalment”, Storm of Steel, writes Jemahl Evans.
It is 643 AD and the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England are in turmoil with internecine warfare: Saxon versus Saxon, pagan versus Christian, and Welsh, Irish, Scots and Franks thrown in for good measure. Beobrand of Ubbanford is homeward bound after a decade in Northumbria building his blood-soaked reputation, back to Kent to arrange a wedding for his odious monarch. He has opted to travel by ship, much to the distaste of his men: “You know where you are with a horse.”
The opening stormy scene is followed by an encounter with pirates, and a desperate chase and battle across the North Sea. From the very outset of the story, the reader is grabbed and swept along in a high-paced adventure with unexpected reveals and twists that barely leave pause for breath.
There is almost a sense of coming full cycle in the story, and the book certainly deals with some very dark themes. Arriving back in Kent, Beobrand’s wyrd soon plunges him into adventure. He is recruited by an old friend to take to the whale road and save her kidnapped daughter. It is a request he cannot refuse.
Rescuing damsels in distress is a noble cause, after all, and these particular pirates have already been foolish enough to earn Beobrand’s enmity in the opening scene. However, the relentless pursuit takes our merry band of cutthroats across the seas into Frankia and beyond as they hunt for the girl.
Beobrand’s character has always reminded me of C.S. Forester’s Hornblower: an intelligent, reflective and self-aware warrior, if sometimes too angst-ridden. The nautical travails in Storm of Steel emphasised that for me. However, Hornblower exists in a more civilised (if no less brutal) society than Beobrand. Driven by nature and necessity to be a merciless killer, the conflict between berserker and rationality is what makes Beobrand so appealing. He is navigating a violent chaotic world, and he is painfully aware of the consequences of his actions.
Harffy is also fully prepared to tug at his reader’s heartstrings, and as characters face death and disaster I was struck at how emotionally invested I have become in this series. Without giving away too much, the death of my favourite character really ripped at me – exactly the reaction the author wanted to evoke, I am certain (I’d like to add that Matt knew it was my favourite actor, and I have visions of him giving an evil cackle at the laptop when he wrote that reveal).
I have said before, that anyone who can make me pick up my copy of Bede or the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle needs to be applauded. Bede is, after all, still as dull as ditchwater and frustratingly oblique for a historian.
I hated the period twenty-five years ago as an undergraduate (I am certain because of an inherent Welsh bias), but now find myself buying more and more books about the Heptarchy. This new fascination is entirely down to Harffy’s brilliant books.
Put quite simply, Matthew Harffy writes a damn good historical adventure story, with a fantastic protagonist and well-rounded and believable characters. Storm of Steel is the best episode yet in the series.
His third book in the series, Of Blood Exhausted, was published on 29 January, 2019. Jemahl is a member of the HWA.