Adventures in Bookland: Fortress of Fury by Matthew Harffy
The many readers who have accompanied Matthew Harffy’s seventh-century warrior hero, Beobrand, through his adventures in the previous six books in the series will be expecting taut adventure, bloody and brutal battle scenes, and further heartbreak for our hero when it comes to women. They will not be disappointed! The action kicks in with yet another attempt to assassinate Beobrand – a man who attracts enemies the way buried Anglo-Saxon hoards attract metal detectorists – and the only let up after that is when the focus shifts to, yes, Beobrand’s continuing ability to make all the wrong romantic choices. However, his mistake in Fortress of Fury really is a dozy: falling in love with the king’s wife, Queen Eanflæd. It’s only with difficulty that this reviewer prevented himself from, in a literary manner, reaching into the book, grabbing Beobrand’s Welsh follower, Cynan, and telling him to urgently recount the story of Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot to his lord. But then, the Arthurian cycle only reached its courtly form five centuries later although that does allow a metafiction thought: Cynan could become the future source of these legends by telling the tale of Beobrand, Queen Eanflæd and King Oswiu to his people. An idea, perhaps, but a better one that has already occurred to Harffy is the use of archaeological evidence to illuminate and drive his plot. Bede tells us that King Penda of Mercia laid siege to the Bernician stronghold atop the great up thrust of the Whin Sill at Bamburgh but says that the attackers were defeated when a prayer-wrought change of wind direction drove the flames they had raised outside the fortress back on themselves. Harffy uses this, but adds to it the archaeological evidence uncovered by the Bamburgh Research Project of extensive burning around St Oswald’s Gate, the original entrance to the castle, to come up with both a great storyline and a thoroughly plausible explanation of what actually happened. This is one of the great strengths of good historical fiction: it enables the writer to play with ideas of the past and Harffy makes full use of this here.
Readers who have followed Beobrand through all his adventures will thoroughly enjoy this latest instalment but this reviewer would like to add his voice to theirs and address the author: please, Matthew, please, please, please, give Beobrand some luck with women by the end of the series. May he find a woman to love, who loves him in return and who doesn’t then die horribly at the hands of his enemies. It’s not too much to ask for a hero who has served you, and the readers, so well.