It didn’t take long for me to become captivated by Mr. Harffy’s Dark Age tales of post Roman Britain, and his protagonist/hero; the flawed and haunted warrior/leader, Beobrand. Through the series, we have watched him grow to manhood, hone his battle skills, acquire land, wealth and prestige, lead a feared battle host, and become a trusted warlord to King Oswald. All of that has come at a great cost to our hero, haunted now with visions of how much he has lost; the faces of his dead foes, his physically marred and scarred body. Yet through the mental anguish he remains the epitome of his time and place, a warrior keeping true to his oaths no matter how much that adds to the cost. Once again the author has penned an enjoyable look at a time not well known, one that adds the element of human emotions to what must have been a brutal time to live. It was also a time of great change; not only in the political realm- the ‘who gets to rule over which people’, but also in the realm of the spiritual – Woden versus the White Christ. Warrior of Woden is many layered, full of surprises (good and bad), and a vivid look and feel for the countryside in it’s fertile splendor and it’s ghastly fields of carrion. In short, another excellent entry into The Bernicia Chronicles. 5 stars
Blog Tour/Q&A: Warrior of Woden by Matthew Harffy (19th April 2018)
- Without giving too much away, can you tell us about Warrior of Woden?WARRIOR OF WODEN is set six years after KILLER OF KINGS and Beobrand has become more settled in his position of lord of Ubbanford. He has wealth and battle-fame and King Oswald respects and likes him. He has been instrumental in several more victories for the King of Northumbria and Beobrand’s black-shielded warriors are feared throughout Albion. But peace never lasts long in Dark Ages Britain and war is again brewing on the border, as Penda, the King of Mercia, is amassing a great force with which to invade Northumbria. And wherever the threat of battles looms, you know Beobrand won’t be far behind.This book tells the tale of one of the greatest battles of the age, where the pagan Penda and the Christian Oswald vie for power over the land and the very souls of its people.
- Warrior of Wodenis the fifth book in your Bernicia Chronicles series. How do you approach meeting the needs of readers who have followed the whole series and those reading Warrior of Woden as a standalone book?Writing a novel is a unique challenge. Writing a series of books comes with an extra set of difficulties. Readers expect a certain flavour they have come to recognise. They wish to revisit the same characters they have grown to love, or hate. They want some familiarity, but at the same time, they do not wish to be bored. Readers want to be thrilled and excited by new, fresh twists, not to have the same old stories repeated. And then, as you say, there is the issue of new readers. It is always in my mind that a reader might come to the Bernicia Chronicles at any point and so each novel must stand on its own merit, providing a satisfying read as well as adding to the overall series.
Each book has a beginning, middle and end, telling a discreet story against the backdrop of the overarching story of Beobrand’s life. The threads from previous books get mentioned and moved along, but they are not crucial to the understanding of the plot and I hope each book can stand on its own merits. Being part of a series does give the characters an extra depth, I think, which makes them more engaging. The backstory is all there to reference without seeming forced at all.
- Warrior of Wodentakes place six years on from the action in Killer of Kings. How has Beobrand fared in the years since the reader last encountered him?In WARRIOR OF WODEN, Beobrand has grown as a leader of men and as a man. His friendships from previous stories have matured and he has less self-doubt. He has more wealth and is now secure in his position. But with that position comes greater responsibility and in this story Beobrand sees his prowess in battle tested more than ever and his oaths and loyalties stretched to the limit. He leads his friends into the bloodiest battle he has faced yet and, as with all warfare, not everyone returns alive and nobody escapes unscathed.
The passage of time since the action of the previous book has allowed me to start afresh to some degree, creating extra backstory, adding new characters, both friend and foe, and providing even more depth to the world Beobrand inhabits.
- Is it frustrating or liberating to be writing about a period which has relatively few contemporary sources?
I think on the whole it is liberating. I am sure some writers would hate it. Especially if they NEEDED to know that what they were writing was absolutely accurate. In my case, I am happy to research and, if I cannot find an answer to something, to take an educated guess. I see this as the role of the novelist, but I think there are some historical fiction writers who would not enjoy that leap into the realms of pure imagination, or at least would feel uneasy about the amount of artistic license I am often forced to take. As long as the stories feel authentic, I am happy. Historical accuracy is for historians. Novelists expose the imagined truth in history.
The lack of detailed contemporary sources gives me a freedom that is not available to writers from other periods in history that have richer documented evidence of events.
- Which scenes in Warrior of Wodendid you find most enjoyable or challenging to write, and why was this?When starting each novel, I know there will be certain key, pivotal scenes. They are often the most difficult to write, as they tend to be when story threads reach their climax, characters die, and that sort of thing. I write chronologically, starting at the beginning and going through to the end without skipping any sections on the way, and as I approach some scenes I find myself getting nervous or excited about them.The opening scene of the prologue of WARRIOR OF WODEN came to me almost fully formed in my mind, and provided a great hook for the rest of the story. I can’t tell you which of the scenes caused me the greatest challenge without giving away spoilers. But suffice to say there was death involved!
- What do you think is the key to creating an authentic picture of a particular historical period?Firstly, you have to research and avoid obvious anachronism.But after that, I think it is about trying to get yourself in the mind-set of the people of the time. What interested them? What kept them awake at night? Was it the same sort of things we worry about today?
To some extent I think people would have had the same concerns. Were their children safe and healthy? Was a man’s wife in a bad mood with him? Was there enough food? Did the roof leak? But there would be many other things that are alien to our way of life now. Would the gods accept my sacrifice? Would the crops fail? Had I fallen out of favour with my lord? Could I afford a new slave? Was my sword sharp and byrnie strong enough to protect me?
Balancing the fundamentally human aspects of the characters with specifically historical concerns really helps readers to connect with them.
Another important aspect of making a period seem authentic is to think of the language used, and to only use metaphors and similes that would mean something to the people of the time. Someone could “strike as quickly as an adder”, for example, but not “feel their skin prickling with electricity”. Of course, electricity existed, but nobody knew what it was or would speak or think of it in those terms. As an example, I decided from the beginning of the series that I would not mention periods of time such as seconds, minutes and hours, as I thought it was unlikely that everyday people would use those measurements. They had no clocks, after all! Hopefully, this type of omission in the language used, adds an overall feeling of authenticity and being different from now.
- If the Bernicia Chronicleswere to be made into a TV series (and wouldn’t that be wonderful), who would you like to see play Beobrand?
That would be wonderful! I really have no idea who I would like to play Beobrand. And let’s face it, if Hollywood came knocking, just like Lee Child with the Jack Reacher movie adaptations, I’d take the money and allow them to cast whoever they liked in the role – even someone as unlikely as Tom Cruise!
- Is there another historical period you would be interested to write about?
I would love to write a novel set in nineteenth century America. The western frontier of the late nineteenth century really interests me and has a lot in common with seventh century Britain in that a bellicose people come in from the east and push the native population into the west.
- The Serpent Sword, Blood and Blade, The Cross and the Curse, Killer of Kings, Warrior of Woden– you clearly have a liking for alliteration! At what point in the writing process do you come up with the title for a book?
I like the alliterative titles as they evoke the oral tradition of story-telling of the Anglo-Saxons. However, I have to say it has proved to be something of a rod for my own back, as each title gets more difficult!
I tend to come up with the title after I have created the plot and I am someway into the writing process. Once the story is solid in my mind, I can think of titles and I find that after I have a title in place it helps me to focus on the story and honing it to fit the themes conjured up by the title.
- What are you working on next?
I am now writing book six of the series. And I have already come up with the title: STORM OF STEEL. It will be released in spring/summer 2019.
Matthew grew up in Northumberland where the rugged terrain, ruined castles and rocky coastline had a huge impact on him He now lives in Wiltshire, England, with his wife and their two daughters.
AD 642. Anglo-Saxon Britain. A gripping, action-packed historical thriller and the fifth instalment in the Bernicia Chronicles. Perfect for fans of Bernard Cornwell.
Oswald has reigned over Northumbria for eight years and Beobrand has led the king to ever greater victories. Rewarded for his fealty and prowess in battle, Beobrand is now a wealthy warlord, with a sizable warband. Tales of Beobrand’s fearsome black-shielded warriors and the great treasure he has amassed are told throughout the halls of the land.
Many are the kings who bow to Oswald. And yet there are those who look upon his realm with a covetous eye. And there is one ruler who will never kneel before him.
When Penda of Mercia, the great killer of kings, invades Northumbria, Beobrand is once more called upon to stand in an epic battle where the blood of many will be shed in defence of the kingdom.
But in this climactic clash between the pagan Penda and the Christian Oswald there is much more at stake than sovereignty. This is a battle for the very souls of the people of Albion.
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“If I die—” Oswald began, his voice intense and jagged.
“You will not die, lord,” Beobrand interrupted. He caught the glance of the warrior against whom Oswald still leaned for support. The man’s eyes were grim. “You will not die,” Beobrand repeated firmly.
“All men die,” whispered Oswald. Beobrand made to speak again, but Oswald raised his left hand. “Hush. I am your lord. Your king. And I would have you swear an oath to me.”
Beobrand nodded. He did not trust himself to speak, his throat was thick with emotion.
“You must swear to me that if I die, you will serve my brother, as you have served me. Oswiu is a father and husband now.” Beobrand recalled how three winters before Oswiu had wed the princess, Rhieinmelth of Rheged. She had quickly borne him a son and was again with child. “Oswiu must not die here today,” Oswald continued. “The kingdom will be his. He will need strong men. Men like you. Lucky men.”
Beobrand loathed it when Oswald referred to him thus. He was not lucky. But he had long ceased trying to correct his king on the matter.
“You are a father too, lord,” said Beobrand, his voice catching. He thought of young Œthelwald and Queen Cyneburg, daughter of Cynegils. “And a husband.”
“I am. But I am king first, and I would have your oath before I breathe my last. Would you deny me that, Beobrand?”
Beobrand shook his head.
“Good. Then swear on whatever you deem sacred that you will give your oath to Oswiu when I die.”
Beobrand clenched his right hand into a fist. By the gods, how had it come to this? Moments ago, he had been standing in the shieldwall, his gesithas by his side, ready to do that for which Oswald most valued him – to bring slaughter to the enemies of Northumbria in the steel-storm of battle. And now, here he was, kneeling in the gelid mud about to swear an oath that would see him tied to Oswiu atheling for the gods knew how many years. Oswiu. Brother of Oswald, son of Æthelfrith. Oswiu, atheling of Bernicia. A powerful man. A cunning man. A dangerous man.
Oswiu, who hated Beobrand.
Beobrand swallowed. The sun was rising red and burning into the empty sky. The men who crowded around them provided no warmth, only shade.
Of course, his oath would mean nothing should he die today. They had come to this place to fight, to put an end to the coalition between Mercia, the East Seaxons, Powys and Lindesege. The threads of Beobrand’s wyrd had long been entangled with those of the sons of Æthelfrith, but he could not have foreseen this twist of destiny.
There was no time for this.
He stared into Oswald’s brown eyes. The king was as pale as the snow atop the peaks of Rheged now. No, there was no time.
“Very well,” Beobrand said, “you have my oath.”
“Swear it on that which you hold most dear.”
“I swear on Octa’s life. I give you my oath, sworn on my son’s life.” He shivered. Why had he uttered those words? To offer up his son’s life so easily. Would that the gods had not heeded him. But he knew it mattered not. His word was iron. The oath was given. It was done. “But, lord, you cannot be seen to have fallen here today, before even a blow is struck. Penda’s host will take heart from such tidings. You must stand in the wall.”
Oswald gritted his teeth and gripped Beobrand’s wrist once more.
“Pull me up.”
But Beobrand did not heave Oswald to his feet.
“No, lord, you cannot fight as you are. Have these two take you to the priests, that they may tend your wounds and pray over you.” Beobrand had seen the magic the Christ priests could spin. He hoped they would be able to work their miracles for the king. The weight of the new oath weighed heavily upon him as if he had just donned another byrnie over his own.
Oswald looked confused.
“But the men…,” he looked about them at the shadowed faces of Wynhelm’s gesithas who watched them in silence, “the fyrd-men will know what has happened…”
Beobrand lifted his helm and placed it gently upon Oswald’s head.
“No lord king, for it is Beobrand of Ubbanford who has been struck with an arrow, not the king.”
Beobrand picked up Oswald’s grimhelm. The faceplate was finely wrought with patterns; images of warriors and beasts embossed in the metal.
“And Oswald, son of Æthelfrith,” said Beobrand, pulling the helm over his head and hiding his features completely, “yet stands in the shieldwall, hale and strong.” The helmet was tight, pressing against his ears.
He stood, towering over the men around him
Oswald smiled again.
“It would seem that the king of Northumbria is indeed blessed,” he said, “for he has grown in stature by almost a head’s height when confronted by this host of Mercians, Waelisc and treacherous men of Lindesege.”
Behind the helm’s faceplate, Beobrand did not return the king’s smile.
“Carry him to the priests,” he said to the warriors, his voice booming strangely against the metal of the helm. “Make it quick and see that they heal him. And remember, it is Beobrand who has taken the arrow.”
Beobrand reached down and hefted the king’s shield from where it had fallen. The handle of the shield boss was cold in his half-hand. He would miss the straps he used in his own shield, but he would have to make do.
The ranks of men parted before him as he stepped towards the front of the shieldwall. He rolled his neck in an attempt to alleviate the tension there, but it was no good. He reached down to his belt and touched the hilt of his sword, Hrunting.
Beobrand took a deep breath. Across the moor, the last vestiges of the morning mists had been burnt away by the rising sun. The frost sparkled like jewels scattered upon the ground. As if they had been waiting for him to take his place, the enemy host let out a huge clamour, hammering their spears and blades into shields and roaring their defiance.
“For Oswald,” started the chant around him, rising in intensity as ever more of the Northumbrians took up the battle-cry. “For Oswald! For Oswald!”
By Woden and all the gods he hoped that he was as lucky as Oswald believed. For he must lead these men into battle.
And he must be victorious.
Beobrand drew Hrunting from its finely tooled scabbard and held it aloft to catch the bright rays of the rising sun.
“For Oswald!” he screamed, lending his voice to the tumult. Then, slashing the sword down to point at the enemy shieldwall, he ran forward.
And the men of Northumbria, believing they followed their king, surged forward with him.