Book Review: The Serpent Sword by Matthew Harffy

The Serpent Sword Cover

BRITAIN 633 A.D. Certain that his brother’s death is murder, young farmhand Beobrand embarks on a quest for revenge in war-torn Northumbria. When he witnesses barbaric acts at the hands of warriors he considers his friends, Beobrand questions his chosen path and vows to bring the men to justice. Relentless in pursuit of his enemies, Beobrand faces challenges that change him irrevocably. Just as a great sword is forged by beating together rods of iron, so his adversities transform him from a farm boy to a man who stands strong in the clamour and gore of the shieldwall. As he closes in on his kin’s slayer and the bodies begin to pile up, can Beobrand mete out the vengeance he craves without sacrificing his own honour … or even his soul? 

My thoughts:

Seventh Century Britain has been a deep fascination for me of late and there are few authors who write about this period-in my opinion-that really draws me in. Three comes to mind and Matthew Harffy is one of them. The setting in this story is Northumbria and it is made up of two Kingdoms, Berninia and Deira. I really like those names for some reason. To give you a picture of how small these Kingdoms were, Deira was probably smaller than the county I live in the USA. Civilization at this time was so untamed, wild and dangerous. Savagery was not uncommon. While reading through this book, I couldn’t help but keep thinking that just to survive in a single day in the Dark Ages was a challenge to put it mildly.

In this story, you will find Beobrand’s challenges greater still. What he came against is-what’s the word I’m looking for-brutality more times than not it seemed like. His will to survive and find his brothers killers were extremely courageous and admirable. Especially during those times. You saw him become stronger not only in his resolve to bring justice for his brother but he had to grow up quickly. He really didn’t have a choice. He was a man of conscious and that is often put to the test in this story. One example is when he witnessed violence towards women. Those scenes were hard to read but I felt in this story it was relevant and I was able to get through it. Maybe I was little scathed…

There was a battle in the story that was a significant time in Britain and I really enjoyed reading about it. Matthew has a knack for writing historical events with such imagery and clarity. One can only think he portrayed this as if he was actually there. A sign of a good historical fiction writer is to take the reader to the setting, period and have them believe they’re actually witnessing it for themselves.

This story is a great achievement for a debut and it was well worth investing my time reading. Harffy pursues his writing endeavors with zeal, passion and creativity. So much so, you will be swept away to Dark Ages. A powerful story, rich with history, conflict, politics, religions of that time, intense situations, danger, powerful characters and historical figures. If you are interested in the Dark Ages or looking for a first read in this period, this book is for you.

Stephanie M. Hopkins

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Historical Fiction & Meaning with Rosanne E. Lortz

Rosanne Lortz

I’d like to welcome Rosanne E. Lortz (“Rose”) to talk with me today about what Historical Fiction means to her and the importance of the genre. Rosanne is a history lover, a book addict, a mom to four boys, and a native of Portland, Oregon. When she’s not writing, she teaches Latin and English composition and works as an editor at Madison Street Publishing. Her latest book, To Wed an Heiress, is a Regency romance/murder mystery loosely based on the characters and events of the Norman Conquest.

What are the periods of history focused on for your writing?

I write historical novels set during the Middle Ages or the Regency Era in England…and sometimes novels based on medieval events with Regency characters.

Why Historical Fiction?

I love the distance created by the past that brings heroic actions and important events into focus.

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When did you know you wanted be a HF writer?

Historical fiction was my favorite genre throughout childhood and my teen years. I always knew I wanted to write, and when I fell in love with historical research during college, it became apparent that becoming a historical novelist was inescapable.

How much time do you spend on research? What sources do you use?

For my medieval adventures, I typically am following the life of a real historical figure, so that requires more research than my Regencies (which are romance/murder mysteries). I start with secondary sources to orient myself and from there move on to the important primary sources which give the color to the novel. I usually do reading on the topic for a couple months ahead of time and then continue doing research as I’m writing.

What do you feel is the importance of historical fiction?

Historical fiction is the best way to excite interest in the past. It’s the gateway drug to history.

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Who are your influences?

Rosemary Sutcliff, Mary Renault, Edith Pargeter, Howard Pyle.

How much fiction (in your opinion) is best to blend with historical facts?

It depends on the story. I would never change a known historical fact to something incorrect, but anything plausible to fill in the gaps is fair game!

How do you feel the genre has progressed in the last ten years?

I enjoy the diversity of storytelling with first and third person narration, and it’s wonderful how historical fiction is now available about so many parts of the world and ages of history. I don’t appreciate that soft porn has become the norm for historical fiction and that it’s unusual to find a historical novel without explicit sexual situations.

What are the important steps in writing HF?

It’s important to orient yourself to the world you’re writing in before you begin writing so that you don’t make an important plot point hinge on something anachronistic. Other than that, I would say write it as you write best. If you’re a plotter, then write a detailed plot. If you’re a pantser, just go for it!

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What must you not do when writing in this genre?

Never say never! All of the rules I’ve heard about writing can be broken effectively by someone skilled in the craft. But I suppose one thing I would caution against is judging historical characters by the culture that we ourselves live in instead of on their own terms.

When writing, do you use visuals to give you inspiration? Such as historical pictures of people, castles, towns and such? What about historical objects?

Yes, maps are very important for my medieval novels. I need to know where things are to be able to describe them accurately. I also look at pictures of places and people—whatever is available can be of great help.

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Historical Fiction & Meaning with Margaret Porter

Margaret Porter with book

I’d like to welcome MARGARET PORTER to Layered Pages today to talk with me about Historical Fiction and what it means to her and the importance of such a fascinating genre. Margaret is the author of A Pledge of Better Times and eleven more British-set historical novels for multiple publishers, in both hardcover and paperback, including several bestsellers and award-winners. Many foreign language editions have been published.

She studied British history in the U.K. and returned to the U.S. to complete her theatre training, and after earning her M.A. in Radio-Television-Film worked as a freelance writer and producer for film and video projects. She worked on location for three feature films and a television series.

An occasional newspaper columnist and book reviewer, she has also written for lifestyle magazines. She contributes articles on British history and travel to numerous publications and blogs, and her photographs (travel, architectural, and nature) appear in a variety of print media and on websites. At national and regional writers’ conferences she presents workshops on historical research and writing techniques. A member of the Authors Guild, Novelists, Inc., Historical Novel Society, London Historians, and other organizations, she is listed in Who’s Who in America; Who’s Who in Authors, Editors and Poets; and Who’s Who in Entertainment.

Margaret returns to Great Britain annually to research her books, and is an avid world traveler. She and her husband live in New England with their two lively dogs, dividing their time between a book-filled house in a small city and a waterfront cottage located on one of the region’s largest lakes.

Margaret, what are the periods of history that you focus on for your writing?

My first eleven novels were all set in the second half of the Georgian era, late 18th or early 19th centuries. A Pledge of Better Times, my twelfth novel, takes place in the late Stuart era, from 1684 till about 1704, with a brief glimpse at the opening year of the George I’s reign. My historical work in progress (biographical) covers the individuals’ lives from 1770s to 1790s. The one following that is 1740s to 1760s.

Why Historical Fiction?

Because I’ve been reading it all my life, almost since I learned how to read. I enjoyed children’s stories set in the past, and I devoured YA historical biographical fiction. My first attempts at fiction, as a very young person, were all historical. Later, as an undergraduate, I studied Tudor and Stuart history in Britain—never realising that I would one day write a novel of the Stuart era. Later I became a specialist in the Georgian era as well, and the Regency.

When did you know you wanted be a Historical Fiction writer?

I think I must have been 10 years old or thereabouts. Some of my relatives were writers—scholars and academics and historians and biographers—so becoming a writer didn’t seem that far-fetched. I was the first novelist in our family, but now there are others.

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How much time do you spend on research? What sources do you use?

I spend great quantities of time and effort on research. It can take years to thoroughly research my novels. Sometimes when in the process of writing one, I will research for a future one. Most of my sources are primary, many of them are in manuscript form (letters, memoirs, diaries, newspapers) and located in the great libraries of the world—the British Library in London, the library at the Victoria & Albert Museum, and various local history or institutional or private collections.

What do you feel is the importance of historical fiction?

First and foremost, a novel should entertain. It should also enlighten—about the human condition, about historical events, about the lives lived in the past and the choices individuals made based upon their circumstances in life and their needs. Immersion in past times is the reason I write and read historical fiction. Often historical events have a resonance with current events, and though the parallels might not be overtly drawn in a book, as writer and reader I am often aware of them.

How much fiction (in your opinion) is best blended with historical facts?

I inevitably follow the historical timeline. To me, it’s not constraining. Within it—for conversations, incidents, motivations—I use my imagination to the fullest. Because of my intensive study of history, I don’t particularly enjoy novels that mess about with past realities, with or without an Author’s Note explaining what was altered. (Unless it’s intended and marketed as alternate history—although I don’t really read in that genre.) I can’t begin to say what’s optimal, I just know what I prefer and I tend to seek out authors who basically do as I do.

How do you feel the genre has progressed in the last ten years?

There’s more selection. Still not enough choice in certain time periods. The emergence of many wonderful contemporary authors of historical fiction—my peers and friends and colleagues—has been a great gift. I appreciate the attention to subgenres—historical mystery, biographical historical fiction, military historical fiction—which is helpful from a reader perspective. Good marketing is key, and though for historical fiction it’s not fantastic (yet), certain publishers have tried hard to reach out to what is still a niche readership.

What are the important steps in writing Historical Fiction?

Determining what the writer most likes to read, because that’s where her or his enthusiasm will be greatest, and storytelling most effective. Choose an era that you love and understand, not just because it’s popular. Do the necessary research to make your novel reflective of the times, with regard to social history and lifestyles. Create characters—real or imagined—who are dynamic, conflicted, sympathetic, or the love-to-hate kind. Make them relatable to a modern readership without being anachronistic.

What must you not do when writing in this genre?

If you want to please this reader, your novel doesn’t have 21st century characters in historic costume. If you are writing about Tudors, don’t give them a Victorian sense of morality. Don’t neglect research. Don’t rely on cardboard characters. Don’t write down to your reader—those who seek out historical fiction are some of the smartest readers out there. They want to be immersed and swept away, so don’t disappoint them!

Do you use visuals to give you inspiration when writing? Such as historical pictures of people, castles, towns and such? What about historical objects?

Whether or not I am writing real people, I rely on portraits of people and places as they were at that time. When I visit locations featured in my books, I take hundreds of detailed photographs. I study maps of locations, floor plans of castles and houses and cottages. When I’m able, I try to find objects connected with my real-life characters, I study types of clothing worn by them. My theatrical training was helpful, I have performed in the costumes of every era I’ve written about. Sometimes I will re-create dishes or drinks they would have consumed. I listen to music of their time, discover what songs were popular, which poets and authors they would’ve read. My process is more than visual!

Who are your influences?

Any number of historical novelists. Anya Seton, Norah Lofts, Diana Norman, Jean Plaidy, Ken Follett, Georgette Heyer. I wouldn’t exactly say I’ve been influenced by Hilary Mantel, but I admired her work well before Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. I don’t think I’m directly influenced by any current authors of historical fiction, but I certainly enjoy reading their books!

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