Monday, November 30, 2015

Being Compared to Greatness: Guest Post by Matthew Harffy

I am excited to welcome author Matthew Harffy to my blog today. His novel, The Serpent Sword, is one of the greatest stories that I have read this year and it has been deservedly named an Editors' Choice by the Historical Novel Society. (Read my review or the HNS review.) 

One common element in Harffy's many positive reviews is a comparison to historical fiction master, Bernard Cornwell. Matthew shares what it feels like to be held to such a high standard and how his Bernicia Chronicles differs from Cornwell's Saxon Stories. I, for one, am thankful that we have both Beobrand and Uhtred adventures to enjoy! 

You can also take advantage of a fantastic Kindle sale today to decide for yourself if Beobrand can take on Uhtred. ~ Samantha


Being Compared to Greatness: How the Bernicia Chronicles differ from Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories


My novel, The Serpent Sword, gets compared to Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Chronicles a lot. I get it, I really do. The first literary agent I contacted turned me down because, and I can quote this verbatim, as I kept the rejection letter in a frame (that’s not weird, is it?): “It’s a tough ask to set a novel here and in this period, when one of the big beasts (the Biggest Beast some would say) of the genre has written such a successful series in the Uhtred novels (albeit a few centuries later).”

It is all true, apart from the bit about Bernard Cornwell being a “big beast”. I’ve never met the man, but he comes across as a pleasant guy in interviews and videos!

I knew my writing would be compared to Cornwell's and that many would even believe I had copied him in an attempt to pick up some of the crumbs left from his Dark Ages banquet. In fact, I was so worried that this would happen, despite it not being the truth, that I very nearly didn’t publish, or even complete writing The Serpent Sword.

In many ways, my writing is inspired by Cornwell, just not by his tales of Uhtred. You see, I began writing The Serpent Sword in 2001 after seeing a BBC programme on television about archaeological digs taking place in and around Bamburgh Castle. I had read Cornwell’s retelling of the Arthurian myths and loved the way he tackled the period. I had also lived in Northumberland as a child and always loved the area and I was alone at home that evening and something sparked inside me. The muse whispered and I answered and started to write a scene of a young man arriving on the beach at Bebbanburg. I had never written anything of novel length before and I had a full-time job, a young family and I was halfway studying for a degree, so progress was slow. But a couple of years later, I had read a lot of research, planned the plot and written about a quarter of the book. I was about to finish my degree and so was hopeful I would be able to buckle down to finish the novel. Then Bernard Cornwell brought out The Last Kingdom, the first of his books featuring one Uhtred of Bebbanburg. His book was set a couple of centuries later, but the similarities were evident. Apparently, Cornwell had liked the Dark Ages too, and it seems the muse does not only speak to me!
To cut a long story short, over the next few years Cornwell continued to do what Cornwell does so well – writing great historical fiction. As each new Uhtred novel was released, I devoured it and gritted my teeth.

The books were great.

My book could have been great.

But not if I never wrote it! So I finally decided that having one successful series that mentions Bebbanburg and Saxons does not preclude another series becoming successful. Otherwise, after James Bond there would be no more spy novels in any of the locations he has visited. And how many Westerns had gunslingers and Marshalls visiting Dodge City?

So I finished the book and guess what – it was successful. Those who have read it enjoyed it and most reviews have been great. But the inevitable comparisons continued. Some reviewers said they preferred my writing to Cornwell’s (really?!), others said my writing was no match for the master of historical fiction. But whatever the opinion, many readers made the link between Beobrand and Uhtred.

The similarities are obvious – swords, kings, shieldwalls and Bebbanburg, but I thought it would be a good idea to lay out some of the main differences.


No Vikings


First, and this is an important distinction, there are no Vikings in my books. The Bernicia Chronicles take place over a hundred and fifty years before the first recorded Viking raid on the British Isles. Almost all of Uhtred’s energies go into fighting the Danes. He is an adopted Dane who then goes on to become the Saxons’ greatest warlord, defending the Christians and defeating the pagan Vikings at every turn, despite his better judgement.

Beobrand is an Angle from Cantware (Kent) who becomes a warrior and thegn of the Angle kings of Bernicia and Northumbria. He too stands in many battles, but these are against the native Britons and Picts and other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Britain, rather than invaders from elsewhere.


Religion


Uhtred is notoriously pagan. All of the Saxons he sides with are Christians and he is much-maligned by them for worshiping the older, tougher gods of the Norsemen.

Beobrand is also a pagan, but in the early seventh century, when the Bernicia Chronicles are set, Christianity was making a slow rise to prominence following centuries of decline in Britain after the Romans left. The Angles, Saxons and Jutes all traditionally worshipped the old gods of Woden (Odin) and Thunor (Thor) and the rest, and it is during Beobrand’s lifetime that the kingdoms of Britain are converting to the new religion of the Christ that promises no more sacrifices and everlasting life. What’s not to like?

Whilst Beobrand favours the old gods, he sees both religions side by side and questions the worth of each as the novels progress.


No England


In the Uhtred books, King Alfred is constantly striving to create one kingdom of Christian English to confront the Danes.

In Beobrand’s world, the kings of Britain such as Edwin and Oswald seek to become Bretwalda, over-king of all other sub-kings. They want the power of having the fealty of other kingdoms. Religious conversion in this context is used as another political weapon.


Sensitivity


Uhtred doesn’t really go in for deep philosophical thinking. Get in his way and he kills you with never a second thought.

Beobrand is also an implacable killer, who does not shy away from dispatching his enemies with sword and spear. But there is a vulnerability to him that we never see in Uhtred. Beobrand fears he will become violent towards women and children as his father was, and he often questions his own decisions after events he’s involved in. He is not maudlin (well not all the time!), but I do think he has a certain sensitivity to his character that Uhtred does not have.

***

There are many more differences between Cornwell’s novels and mine, but I think you get the idea. In the end I am flattered to be compared to Bernard Cornwell. He is one of my all-time favourite authors. And I’m pleased I made the decision to tell Beobrand’s story, despite the similarities with Cornwell’s books. Just as there is enough room in the world for both James Bond and Jason Bourne, so there can be both Uhtred and Beobrand.

Have you read any of Cornwell’s Uhtred novels and The Serpent Sword? What do you think of the comparisons? Can you see any other differences I haven’t mentioned?

Connect with the Author



Connect with Matthew Harffy on his website, on Twitter, and on Facebook

Can't wait to learn more about Beobrand? Get your copy of The Serpent Sword today! As a special bonus, it is on sale right now for 99c/99p (depending upon your side of the pond). What a fantastic deal, just in time to be ready for the release of The Cross and the Curse on January 22nd (available now for pre-order)! 

6 comments:

  1. An interesting analysis of the differences in both historical setting and characterization. Let's hope both authors keep up the good work.

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    1. I couldn't agree more! Thanks for stopping by my blog. :-)

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  2. Perfect comparison of Beobrand and Uhtred, Matthew. Whilst I'm a big fan of the Uhtred books, when I started reading The Bernicia Chronicles, I never ever saw a similarity between the two. Cornwell writes in one way, you write in another and a discerning reader will see the uniqueness in both of you. The agent who dismissed you must be cursing an ill-decision.
    I always think that in every timeframe there is room for many an author. We all have our own styles and readers are clever people...

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    1. Well said, Prue. I do think that Beobrand is a much deeper character than Uhtred, though I can see why people make the connection. Being compared to Cornwell is certainly no bad thing!

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    2. Thanks, Prue! I'm not sure that agent is that bothered, but nice to think he might one day rue the day! ;-)

      I think in the end the comparison is probably more a help than a hindrance.

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    3. Thanks again for this post, Matthew. I wish you great success with the release of 'The Cross and the Curse'!

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