The Serpent Sword by Matthew Harffy
The Dark Ages in Britain are a fertile period to mine. The sources, few as they are, talk of kings and warlords, battles and death, and then arrive the men from the North. It is the period of Beowulf and Arthur, of a Britain living in the decay of the Roman withdrawal and the arrival of a new God to fight the old. Into this mix, Matthew Harffy has thrown a young warrior, Beobrand, into the turmoil of Northumbria to find his fame.
Beobrand, a young man from Cantware (Kent) and escaping a shadowy past, heads north to join his brother Octa in the Northumbrian fortress of Bebbanburg in the service of King Edwin. When he arrives, he finds his brother dead and war looming. Swearing service to the King, Beobrand heads off to fight the warband of invading Welsh. With ideals of honour and glory drummed into him by his uncle and the mysterious dying words of his mother, "You are not your father's son" running through his mind, the massacre that follows is not what he had expected. Staggering from the battlefield, he finds refuge in a monastery and befriends the young monk, Coenred, who found him and tended his wounds. When warriors arrive at the monastery, Beoband joins them in the desire to find a lord, become a warrior and avenge his brother.
Needless to say, things don't go to plan and this is the basis of the odyssey that Harffy takes his young hero upon, through the forests of Britain and into the darker recesses of Beobrand's companions. As they travel, Beobrand is trained and he starts to shed his innocence, if not his honour. We also see the realities of life for the peasants who have to live in the shadow of warlords and fighting men, haunted and broken by what they have seen. Harffy paints vivid pictures with his tale and has created a very likeable cast of characters to follow, even if the story as a whole is very male oriented. While I raced through the book, it got more noticeable the lack of a strong female counterpoint to the maleness of the tale. Given Harffy is walking a world very close to that of Bernard Cornwell's Uthred (Cornwell being a touchstone Harffy mentions, along with David Gemmell and Larry McMurthy), the introduction and dispatching of a number of women in the first two thirds of the novel is troubling. But, this being the first in a series, I'll wait till I catch up on the next three books in The Bernica Chronicles (the next two are available now as eBooks, with the forth due in June) to see how this disappointing element pans out. As the tale is well told and moves apace, this element was the only major thing that niggled me as I read.
As a launch pad for a series, The Serpent Sword does everything it should, it throws you into a world, show you who you should follow and who you should fear and leaves more then enough meat of the bones to want to see what should come of Beobrand next. The Serpent Sword is a strong debut.