Adventures in Bookland: The Serpent Sword by Matthew Harffy
Like two warriors, we circled each other: wary, watchful, waiting for the other to make the first move. Each of us thought ourselves kings of our realm, alone and unchallenged until, through whisper and word, news came of another claimant to the throne.
The throne was the king of the 7th century and we, writers, working in what we had each thought was a personal playground until we found the other: the interloper, the intruder. The rival.
At least, that’s how it was for me. I’d been writing Edwin: High King of Britain for a month or two, all the while congratulating myself on my wit in staking claim to this most transformative yet unrepresented era in history when I learned that one Matthew Harffy was busy writing his own novel, The Serpent Sword, set in the same period. What was worse, Edwin, my King Edwin, was in his book as well.
My first reaction was, naturally, to hope for his complete and utter failure. That this Matthew chap – what was it with the two ‘f’s, after all? – would prove just another wannabe, telling the world he was a writer before he’d actually written anything of any worth.
But then he went and got himself an agent. Not good. Not good at all – particularly when I didn’t have one. All right, I had a publisher – Lion Fiction – but it was surely only a matter of time before his agent got him a publisher and then he’d be the first to put his words into the 7th century and lay claim on Northumbria. Luckily, I was almost finished with Edwin and, what’s more, we got a commendation from Bernard Cornwell – yes, that Bernard Cornwell – to go on the cover. Round 1 to me, I thought.
But then The Serpent Sword came out. And while it didn’t have Bernard Cornwell extolling it, it had pretty well everyone else. Looked like this Matthew bloke could write. What was worse, he was being nice to me online – he even bought (and read!) Edwin. Now what was I going to do?
Read his book, of course.
But there we hit the hidden fear that gnaws at the heart of every writer. What if we’re really not any good? All the good reviews flow off our backs like water, but every 1-star sticks barbs into our souls and refuses to come out.
What if I read Matthew’s book and thought it was better than mine?
Then my publisher asked me to read another book set in 7th-century Northumbria, The Abbess of Whitby by Jill Dalladay. While there was some overlap with my work, the focus was clearly different: I could try this.
So I read it and, reading, found myself twisted sideways, like looking at a spoon through a glass of water: everything distorted. Reading about these people – people I had written in my own books – imagined differently was intensely, in fact unpleasantly, distorting. Having finished The Abbess of Whitby, I realised I could not go near another vision of 7th-century Northumbria until I had finished my own exploration of the time.
While Matthew and I had become steadily more acquainted online – chiefly through his unfailing generosity and support – I prevaricated and circled around the great big elephant in our room: the fact that he’d read my book and I hadn’t read his. Two more books were written – my Oswald: Return of the King, his The Cross and the Curse – and still I circled away, attempting to repay his generosity with promises to, someday, read Matthew’s work.
Then, the day came. I had finished Oswiu: King of Kings. I was finished in the 7th century. Now there was no more hiding. Now, I had to read his book and answer the question: is he better than me?
The answer: yes.
Yes, he is. He is better at doing what he is doing than I could ever be. But, reading The Serpent Sword, I realised that Matthew isn’t doing what I am doing: we are writing different worlds set in the same place and time, and exploring different aspects of storytelling and world creation.
Matthew writes of men and battles and blood and war better than pretty well anyone else around – his nearest comparison is, in fact, Bernard Cornwell’s Uhtred and a mark of how fine a debut The Serpent Sword is, is the fact that Beobrand doesn’t suffer in comparison with Uhtred.
I don’t know how he did it, but Matthew seems to have escaped every single one of the usual first novel traps: there’s no over exposition, there’s no repeating information to the reader, there’s no failure to trust his words. Everything is lean and taut and finished: like the titular sword, this story cuts.
My only word of warning to prospective readers is that it’s pretty brutal. These were, of course, brutal times, but if you are squeamish about the depiction of violence, this might not be the book for you. But if you enjoy story telling of the highest order, this book is for you.