Matthew Harffy
ARRSE Rating
3.5 Mushroom Heads
Caution – Spoilers ahead

For a long time, I’ve become aware that I am an odd man out. A lot of popular culture seems to pass me by, or I feel cold to what the mainstream seems to love and rant about.

It’s not that I don’t feel passion – I do – but I do find myself out of step with a lot of other folk.

Infinity War? – Meh.
Breaking Bad? – So what?
Dexter? Next-er.

Therefore, it doesn’t come as a surprise to find that sadly, I’m out of step with public opinion on “Blood and Blade,” which is the third book in The Bernicia Chronicles. Written by Matthew Harffy, an author for whom I had previously been unfamiliar with, it enjoys phenomenal Amazon reviews and some heavyweight testimonials from fellow writers.

Regrettably, I found myself disappointed whilst reading this book, which is a real shame because I enjoy historical fiction as much as the next man; the superlative “Wolf” series by Conn Iggulden being a prime example, or anything by Simon Scarrow,
It’s never easy to walk in halfway through a series of books as this one is, but with the exception of a few terms such as “wyrd” and “gesithas” which one can intuit eventually, it was fairly simple to dive into and pick up the threads left by the preceding novels.

My biggest problem is that Beobrand the hero feels really soggy to me. He is understandably upset about events in the past, but manages to mope through the book with a level of navel-gazing which surely was uncommon in those times. After a while, you want to give him a bloody good shake and tell him to man up.

There are other problems, not least of which are a cast of supporting characters that are quite forgettable, with only Beobrand’s thrall Reaghan getting anything like a measure of page-time. Oswald the king and his scheming brother Oswiu are identikit royal siblings and the characters in Beobrand’s gesithas don’t feel like fleshed out people at all, which is a problem.

There was also a head-scratching moment when Bassus, a major character from a previous book I’m assuming is dead, then alive in the next chapter. The priest attending him (paraphrasing) says: “We were too late, I’m sorry,” which would certainly infer that Bassus had drunk his last cup of mead, but in the next chapter, he’s alive, fighting off infection!

It's not a deal-breaker, but it did impact my immersion as I couldn’t figure out whether it was an editor’s mistake or an attempt to make the reader fear the worst, before revealing that Bassus was actually fine. Either way, that section didn’t work for me.

You might think from my review that "Blood and Blade" is rubbish, but here’s the rub: none of these faults, either singly or collectively, were enough to make me hate the book, which is a massive achievement. Most books that show these types of flaws deserve a one-star review because if the main character is unsympathetic it’s a deal-breaker for any novel and indeed the cardinal sin in writing.

There are several parts in the book, particularly when Cyneburg is captured, Reaghan is nearly poisoned and the final battle with Torran where I felt rushes of page-turning adrenaline that put Harffy up there with Cromwell or Scarrow, despite any misgivings I may have about the book or its characters. The combat scenes are well done, if a tiny bit sterile when it comes to the horrific injuries inflicted. The historical care with which the novel has been written is obvious and it is clear that Matthew Harffy has a keen interest in that period of time.

I've read “Blood and Blade” twice now because I wanted to confirm my opinions and to see if it would read smoother the second time around, which it did. A lot of the things that jarred me on the first read-through didn’t bother me as much on the second reading.

I’m curious as to how Beobrand was before he lost his wife, as well as whether he will get his final revenge on those responsible. I’m also intrigued as to how Oswald will resolve his lover’s triangle and what'll happen to Cyneburg.

For a book that contains as many flaws as it does, to still make me want to read more and learn the rest of the story makes a compelling case for itself.

That’s a good thing, no?

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