Book Review: Kin of Cain, by Matthew Harffy
I have been a fan of the Bernicia Chronicles almost from the beginning, though I was a wary convert. Usually one to be skeptical of books when one is “supposed” to like it (I generally steer clear of popular best-seller lists, Oprah book club selections, etc.), I prefer to make up my own mind about them. If a celebrity or a highly paid marketing firm suggests it, my cynic’s mind kicks in. So when I heard that Harffy’s first book, The Serpent Sword, was compared to one of my favorite authors, Bernard Cornwell, I immediately pushed it aside. Cornwell has been writing for 20 years or so, and his novels have appeared on the small screen (Richard Sharpe and the Saxon stories). Cornwell has a huge following and is widely considered one of the best battle scene writers.
But… I wanted to know what the hype was all about. I’d seen his name pop up within the same social media circles, and decided to give Serpent Sword a try. And to say I was pleasantly surprised is an understatement.
I have already reviewed the main novels in the Bernicia Chronicles here and here, so I won’t reiterate why I love the series. To summarize for purposes of this review however, I will say that the key to my love is the in main protagonist of these tales, Beobrand. I love that Beobrand is a hero, but he is also an imperfect hero. He has a darkness lurking somewhere inside him, and it’s this darkness which propels and motivates him throughout the plot of each book. He has strengths and weaknesses, just like a real person, and he wrestles with them, second guessing decisions, dealing with past hurts and loves. He may be a character in a story set over a thousand years ago, but in this, he is just like any modern human alive on the planet today.
Kin of Cain takes a step back in time from the novels in The Bernicia Chronicles. It is a book set in the Bernicia Chronicles “universe”, but it is a sort of prequel in novella form. Readers of The Serpent Sword will immediately remember Beobrand’s brother Octa. The death of Octa (only referred to in that book and not covered in Kin of Cain) forces Beobrand into motion, setting off the series. Kin of Cain takes a look at one figurative chapter in Octa’s life, before we ever meet Beobrand, chronologically speaking.
The novella is a wonderful story, something I’d expect from Harffy in the style and telling of it. The pace is good, and the characters are familiar. I don’t read thriller/horror fiction, so I am probably not doing the genre or this novella justice by using a comparison, but I will. Because the main action of the story is set at night, in a misty, swirling swamp, and the antagonist of the story commits grisly atrocities, the novella feels like a thriller to me. Hound of the Baskervilles, anyone? — minus Sherlock Holmes and inserting Dark Age warriors carrying swords and other sharp bits of steel, of course. It was creepy, but the horror is suggested and happens off the page, making it more thriller than horror.
The only down side to the novella, which really isn’t saying much, is Octa. Don’t get me wrong: I like the guy. But because this is a novella, I felt that we didn’t really get a chance to know him very well. Several times he echoes regret at leaving his mother and little brother at the mercies of his brutal father, Grimgundi, as he goes off on the king’s service, but beyond those reveries we don’t see much of the inner Octa. I don’t fault the novella for this. It’s a novella. There isn’t a lot of literary real estate for such luxuries. I have just been spoiled by the superb development of Beobrand over the course of several novels.
The novella ends with one little surprise for lovers of classic literature. I won’t spoil it for those who have yet to read the book. But this one is a delight, and I have to chide myself for not catching on a little sooner to what Harffy was doing over the entire course of the novella. Especially when you consider the fact that I remember, in retrospect, his social media posts about the fact that he was going to do it!
I recommend Kin of Cain to fans of The Bernicia Chronicles, but because the story is set independently outside the series, it works very well as a stand-alone. For this reason, I also recommend the novella to those who think they might enjoy Harffy’s writing but don’t know if they want to commit to a feature-length book.
Kin of Cain was released March 1, 2017. Make your purchase here.
For more information about Matthew Harffy and his books, visit his website: www.matthewharffy.com