Readers and authors alike have often speculated, exchanged witty literary parlance, even argued — for decades, without resolution – over one thing: What makes one piece of writing bad, another great? No one has solved this question, and likely no one ever will. Because writing and the enjoyment of what another has written is very subjective.
I won’t attempt to quantify or explain what makes writing bad. I think this one is fairly obvious and self-evident. Each of us knows at a deep, almost visceral level, when we read bad literature even if we can’t say why. But what makes a piece of writing rise above the mundane? The degrees of the rise can be subtle, and here are three reasons I think Matthew Harffy’s book, The Serpent Sword as well as the second book of his Bernicia Chronicles, The Cross and the Curse, is great writing:
It’s easy to imagine the stereotype of a warrior from pre-Norman Britain in the days before the Saxon kingdoms were congealed, and before the coming of the Viking invaders. Brutish, primitive, mindless, emotionless… Any writer can draw a caricature of this type of character on the page, but it takes a true wordsmith to weave the magic, and Harffy does this. Instead of a flat figure, he creates in his young Beobrand a multi-dimensional, flesh and blood young man who grows and develops before our eyes. He attains hero status without losing the reader in the unbelievable by still allowing Beobrand to be a man of his time. He is imperfect and flawed, has successes – some through skill and others by falling into them (SPOILER ALERT! I’m thinking of the capture of the Waelsic king Cadwallon). He is true to the integrity and honor code of his day and age, respect for his wyrd, love for his family and duty to his lord and his friends, all while battling a darkness inside that we’re never quite sure if he can overcome.
And it’s this darkness which is key to Beobrand’s success as a character. It causes him to do all kinds of interesting things in the books. Because of it, he wrestles often with feelings over his own worth, of his identity in the world, with his ability to protect those he loves most. This darkness causes him to make bad choices, to slip into a drunkenness (for instance) quite unlike what we’d expect of him, only furthering some of his bad choices.
As a man of his time, he uses his skills in warfare, the ones he learned and honed fighting his internal demons, as a tool; yet we discover that he is the master of the beast of his abilities rather than the mastered. Or is he? It’s this knife-edge on which Beobrand continually walks, and it’s this conflict of character, which propels the plot time and time again.
It’s what endears Beobrand to the reader because it makes us want to cheer for him. He is vulnerable: we see the dark places in his soul and we recognize his humanity. We agonize for him and turn the pages in suspense. He’s not a flat representative of a storybook character. We can see bits of us in him, and we love him for it.
Further to that, it’s not just Beobrand. This same magic is applied to other more short-lived characters. They don’t just appear “on stage” and then disappear again. Their presence lingers in the room like a fragrance, like they live and breathe somewhere else even though we can no longer “see” them.
I am not an expert in Anglo Saxon history, so I can’t really say where, if ever, anything in the book goes deviates from the facts. But all of that doesn’t really matter to me necessarily, as a primary importance, if one thing is present: that the author owns up to the places in the story where they have knowingly deviated from the facts. I don’t have a problem with deviation. It’s historical fiction after all. What I do have a problem with are authors who try to pass off historical fiction works as pure, exacting history when they knowingly deviate from the facts or haven’t bothered to do the level of exhausting research necessary to do any piece of history or historical fiction justice. I won’t name names, but this happens. And sadly some of the biggest offenders are fairly high profile authors who sell lots and lots of books.
That Harffy has done his research is obvious. The story and prose is soaked in authenticity and detail in such a way that would not be true if he hadn’t dug into the research. There is also a gritty realism in the story, that while we may not like it, carries the banner of authenticity and adds weight to the story. Harffy wouldn’t be doing his book or future generations any justice if he skimmed over these issues (I’m thinking of sexual violence, battle violence, religious tension, etc.). It may make our modern sensibilities uncomfortable (and rightly so), but Harffy masterfully uses these events to propel Beobrand within the context of his world. The uncomfortable events are necessary evils, and Beobrand engages with and then grows through them. Like an oyster which grows a pearl through the irritation of a grain of sand, so Beobrand and his world gains credibility through the horrors he witnesses and fights with, over, and against.
While some readers complain about too much description, wanting nothing more than to get to the action straightaway, to me the details are something to savor. The details of description are like word paint dotting the landscape. You may not notice the details in a hurried reading, but a careful review lends itself to the piquancy these small touches add, and the result is fuller for it.
Harffy’s word choice and style conjures a mysterious tangibility to otherwise abstract concepts of things like beauty, cold, fear, etc. His cadence feels somehow primitive yet allows the reader to remember that the characters hail from a culture vastly different from our own even if they are our ancestors. Well placed phrases like “You are well come into Ubba’s hall” are period appropriate without bogging down the flow.
It somehow doesn’t seem fair to compare one author’s work to another, yet the comparing allows us to gauge or mark where a novel or piece of writing sits on the literary landscape. Matthew Harffy’s writing stands up on its own without comparison, but for those who need the extra nudge, I say this: If Harffy and Bernard Cornwell were to have introduced their first novel at the same time, neither of them having ever been discovered, it’s a toss-up over which author would be selling manuscripts to producers and whose stories would be told on a screens in homes across the globe today.
Harffy’s first novel, The Serpent Sword is on sale as an ebook for $.99 from Amazon, and signed print copies of the book from www.matthewharffy.com just in time for Christmas! Pre-orders are now available for the second book, The Cross and the Curse which will be released on January 22, 2016.