A Time of Swords tells a story about Hunlaf, a novice monk, who was delivering vellum from Werceworth to the Lindisfarne Priory. He took this chance to steal a glance and enquire more about a mysterious and magnificent book called The Treasure of Life. While enjoying his times in Lindisfarne, Hunlaf was met with an unwelcome visit from the pillaging and plundering travellers of the sea: The Norsemen had arrived.
A band of somehow mismatched people must now unite and forget their differences to defend Werceworth from the incoming pillagers. Can they overcome their past, hatred, and doubts to lead the local people and drive the Norsemen away?
Matthew Harffy, WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN ALL MY LIFE??
I have been longing and actively looking for historical fiction depicting the Viking attack on Lindisfarne for years! Then I realised that this book was only published in 2020.
I think I’ve mentioned before in one of the past reviews that I wanted to read about this particular historical event. Why? I don’t know. There is something about Lindisfarne that draws me in the same way that I feel about Whitby Abbey. Now, perhaps it’s one of my regrets that I didn’t continue my travel towards Bamberg from Whitby and Scarborough that gets me so worked up about Lindisfarne. I would instead think that Lindisfarne is one of the most significant historical points that changed a whole nation.
To be honest, what interests me in the event of the Viking invasion of Lindisfarne was not the carnage that had befallen on that day, June 7, 793. I was more interested in how the local people deal with the event, or at least an imaginary illustration of it told through a book like A Time for Swords. In times of chaos and murder, there must have been plenty of small stories that emerged and worthy of being imagined into prose. This book is one of those stories.
A Time for Swords: Story & Characters
This book was written from Hunlaf’s point of view as he withers away from old age. He recounts his life as he thought it is important to write his history. At the time of writing this account, he stays in a monastery under Abbot Criba—the location not mentioned.
His story started when he and Leofstan were on their way to Lindisfarne Priory in the Holy Island, delivering vellum from Werceworth (modern Warkworth). Hunlaf was enthusiastic in seeing the priceless manuscript collection of the priory known as the best in the whole Christendom.
Upon their arrival, they were informed that Oslac (a resident monk in Lindisfarne) have something that might be of their interest to see. It was a book. More precisely, The Treasure of Life by Mani. Hunlaf and Leofstan stayed a while in Lindisfarne, long enough to experience the dreadful horror that is the raid of the Norsemen.
The main problem in A Time for Swords is the possible upcoming visitation from the Norsemen. Gathering information from the captured Norseman, Runolf Ragnarsson, Hunlaf felt that other raiders would come and wreak havoc in Werceworth. He convinced Lord Uhtrid to report to King Æthelred I of Northumbria, who at this period sits in Eoforwic (modern York). He also suggested that the Lord ask for enforcement from the King’s army. The adventure began here.
The change of role in Hunlaf character is sudden and abrupt. He was a beginner scribe whose task was to deliver the vellums to the Priory. I imagined him being this meek figure, harmless, and soft-spoken. But when the invaders came, he had to switch into a mighty saviour for his cousin, Aelfwyn. From handling manuscripts in his daily life, suddenly Hunlaf is required to kill and shed blood.
By Chapter 20, I slowly start to think that Hunlaf will not be a monk much longer. This is my bid, though. I don’t know what the author wants with the guy. Throughout the story, I can tell many times that his mind toyed with the “what-if” questions: what if I like to kill, what if I took an oath, what if I learn the art of the sword. Oh, Hunlaf, just hang your robe and get your chain mail on already!
Runolf Ragnarsson is one character of what I call an outlier. He fought against his own men when they want to torture some kids. There ain’t no time thinking about that when you’re plundering and bludgeoning everything that moves. But Runolf did, and he saved those kids. His story started as an aftermath of this heroic act. As a prisoner, he was given a chance to look into the lives of the people he planned to destroy. More importantly, he gained a friend—and then two friends, and then more friends.
King Æthelred I of Northumbria decided that he could not spare more men to help Werceworth, for he thought that the raiders would not come at all. He ordered Lord Uhtrid to delegate one of his men to aid the minster. Uhtrid then appointed Hereward to form his own warband in fighting the supposed raid from the Norsemen. For he was not even mentioned until the mid-chapters, I wouldn’t think that Hereward gained my attention. I thought he was an arsehole, really. But he had proven throughout the story that he is a responsible, sensible, and just leader.
Gwawrddur is a Welshman, and I care not how I should pronounce his name. But since he showed up in Chapter 22 when the lot was in York, I knew he was the fitting addition to the group. Throughout the book, I told myself that this is the kind of guy that I can fall in love with in real life: calm but deadly.
A Time for Swords: The Review
A Time for Swords is a tale of cultural discoveries, a self-revealing journey and friendships. From all the horrors of pillaging and plundering, I least expected the story based on rampage and raids would turn into something as heartfelt and touching as this book was.
I loved the book because it’s gory, it’s gripping, it’s somehow a little bit tantalising. I don’t know where the story will go, what place it would take me, and what to expect of each character (stupid Cormac!) This is rare that I took a chance on a new author’s work and found total satisfaction reading it. Matthew Harffy wrote the story made me feel as if I went on this journey with them.
I found myself being immersed in the situation, for I can feel Hunlaf’s contemplation about wanting to be a fighting man. I can certainly feel the way Runolf awed as he was marched from Bebbanburg (Bamburgh) to Eoforwic. He, the one from another culture, was given a chance to see the lives of the people he plundered not two days ago. At some point, I feel Runolf discovered that the people in the new land he’s in isn’t any different from his own people. And that, my friends, is the magic of travelling.
But it is indeed in a long journey that you will discover the true nature of your fellow travellers. Surely more than simply discovering who belches and farts the loudest or who snores annoyingly at night. I can vouch for such an experience myself. I feel that the process of discovery was laid out beautifully and organically in this tale.
I loved it when the badass women of Werceworth showed up to help fight off Skorri and his men. The portrayal of Wulfwaru is perfect—not showing the toxic femininity that’s adorning other books. I wish she had more scenes, though. That woman is a real deadly badass. It’s good to know that by the end of the book, everything worked out for her.
This is rare that I took a chance on a new author’s work and found total satisfaction reading it. Matthew Harffy wrote the story made me feel as if I went on this journey with them. I loved the book because it’s gory, it’s gripping, it’s somehow a little bit tantalising.
A similar scene was depicted in Ken Follett’s The Evening and the Morning when Edgar’s town was bludgeoned by the visitation of the Vikings. It was pretty much in the same flow and gore where people were murdered, captured, or enslaved. That’s a known history for sure. But reading it as if I’m actually witnessing it is a different feeling. It’s eerie and frightening, not even wanting to imagine being in the shoes of those victims.
I truly appreciate the author’s preference to use the original Old English place names, character names, and terminologies. It was challenging at first, for I am only familiar with several of them. I was curious at first about the involvement of The Treasure of Life in this story. But reading the author’s note, I’m now sure that the book is there to embellish the story. It fits nicely to the last chapters, though.
Hunlaf, Hereward, Runolf, and the other members of the warband are certainly a culturally diverse group of friends forced by the situation. Their relationships were weird at the beginning. They didn’t ask for it; one of them despise the idea of being friends. But yet, here they are at the end of the book, becoming friends and comrades fighting together against Jarl Skorri and his men.
I would certainly welcome another story about these three. My eyes went wide as I read:
“If it is in the Almighty’s plan, I will live to write of these things and more, but for now I will close this book here.” – Hunlaf, Chapter 59.
Wait, what? There’d be a second book? Yep. I have confirmed this when I saw Goodreads has the upcoming book listed. Matthew Harffy is cooking up the second instalment of A Time for Swords, which is due in 2022. Now, I’ll just have to make do with reading another piece by Matthew Harffy: Wolf of Wessex.