Historians may debate where the dawn of the Viking Age should be placed in history, but from Britain’s point of view, there can be little doubt. In 793AD raiders crossed the North Sea and unleashed a devastating attack on the monastery of Lindisfarne. Such was its savagery that it burned a deep scar in the British psyche for a long time to come.
Matthew Harffy’s latest novel, A Time for Swords, isn’t the first to deal with this event, but for my money, it’s the best. Harffy has already established himself as a master of the Dark Age thriller, and this novel is as thrilling as anything he’s written.
The novel opens with a young monk named Hunlaf under the tutelage of his spiritual and intellectual mentor, Leofstan. The pair are visiting the famous library at Lindisfarne on the eve of the day of doom. There, they have noticed a book called The Treasure of Life, a Manichaean text proscribed by the Church. This is a seed for a later story, but before they are able to examine the book further, a band of Viking killers descends upon the island.
So begins the slaughter.
Harffy’s vision of the ensuing carnage is portrayed with customary skill and at a heart-racing pace. Crisis reveals character, and during this raid Hunlaf discovers himself to be a “man who runs towards danger, not away from it.” He kills a raider, only to be surrounded by several others. But thanks to another Norsemen, who turns on his own comrades in order to protect Hunlaf and two children, he survives.
The raiders depart, leaving this enigmatic Viking behind. In the wake of the devastation, most agree that hanging is too good for him. However, Hunlaf intervenes on his behalf, arguing that God had allowed the Norseman to fall into their hands for some purpose.
So begins an unlikely friendship between Hunlaf and this hulking warrior, Runolf. News of the raid goes up the chain of command. At each turn Runolf’s fate hangs in the balance, but thanks to Hunlaf’s quick wits and his growing conviction that the Viking could help them defend against future raids, his life is spared.
A warrior named Hereward is charged with defending the monastery at Werceworthe (Hunlaf’s home), but with the king’s forces already spread so thin, Hereward must muster his own men for the job. Here, Harffy introduces a delightfully motley crew of fighting men (and one equally deadly woman). Seven in all – a number reminiscent of The Magnificent Seven, which Harffy reveals in his author’s note was one of the inspirations behind this story.
As this unlikely band prepares for the feared attack, we feel their sense of uncertainty and dread, even impatience for something to happen. Needless to say, it’s worth the wait. When the action comes, it piles towards a climax that is as sustained as it is savage.
Thrilling as that is, the heart of this book is about Hunlaf’s wrestle with his calling. Is he a man of peace – as we find him – or a man of war, as he inexorably becomes? As a study of how that spiritual conflict plays out, this novel feels insightfully true.
A Time for Swords is a wonderful story and a bold opening from Harffy to yet another enthralling series. It promises to be one heck of a ride.
Theodore Brun studied Dark Age archaeology at the University of Cambridge before a career in law. In 2010 he cycled 11,000 miles from Hong Kong to Norfolk. He is the author of the epic Viking series, The Wanderer Chronicles. His latest novel, The Burning Sea, is set during the siege of Constantinople in 717/718AD.