Jemahl Evans reviews Matthew Harffy’s A Night of Flames, set in Northumbria and Norway in the late 8th century, and finds it rich with “humour and heartbreak, and a plot which rattles along at a breathless pace”.
I am always chuffed when I get one of Matthew Harffy’s books to review. A Night of Flames is Matt’s second book in his series about Hunlaf the novice monk turned warrior, and it’s another gripping page-turner from the master of heroic historical fiction.
It is 794, and a year has passed since the Viking massacre at Lindisfarne that changed Hunlaf’s life forever. The Norsemen’s war on Northumbria is ongoing, and the raiders’ great advantage is their longships, which allow them to travel the Whale Road and strike anywhere with impunity.
Hunlaf and his Norse ally, Runolf, have plans of their own, of course (not least finding a heretical book), but sail into a slave uprising that is burning through Rogaland, and a charismatic leader who is hell-bent on destruction.
This is one of Matt’s best books, and he is really developing as a writer.
Hunlaf is a wonderfully conflicted character who is forced by great events to take up his sword and fight. He is a very different protagonist from Matt’s Beobrand books, and in many ways a more believable human character than that force of nature. I think the first person narrative helps in that respect giving the character more emotional credibility.
The action is, as always, brutal and bloody and Harffy does not hold back on the gore, but it is not a simple Dark Age warrior romp. The early pages of the book, as the Brymsteda and her crew are put together, have a real Hollywood ensemble vibe, and it sets up a focus on the ship and her crew that pays off as the novel unfolds.
There is humour and heartbreak, and a plot which rattles along at a breathless pace to the violent ending.
Matt delivers real people swept up into well-researched history, and it really sets his writing apart from the rest. His descriptive prose draws the reader into his world, but it is the dialogue and interactions between Hunlaf, Runolf, and their merry crew of cut-throats and misfits that really sparkled for me.
This is so much more than a hack-and-slash Viking saga, of which there are so very many on the market at the moment. In fact, it’s only Matt and Bernard Cornwell who make me pick up novels about Vikings these days. Just as an aside, the maps in the hardback edition are beautifully drawn.
You can read A Night of Flames as a stand-alone novel, but I would highly recommend getting the first book in the series to fully appreciate Hunlaf’s development and the ongoing story of the Viking invasion of England. I am very much looking forward to the next one in the series.
See how he writes compelling and realistic battle scenes in Battling with history: how to write fight scenes
He has written about the historical background to The Charioteer in Stealing the secret of silk: the first international industrial spies?