In The Wolf Of Wessex, Matthew Harffy picks up a theme which has worked well in other genres and applies it to Dark Ages England. The theme I’m referring to is that of the aged, world-weary warrior, who is somehow persuaded to help a much younger character, often a child.
Top of my head, I can remember watching this kind of story unfolding to great effect in the movie True Grit, in which old hand ‘Rooster’ Cogburn, played by Jeff Bridges, agrees to help the younger Mattie Ross track down her father’s killers. Come to think of it, I don’t recall previously coming across this kind of story in historical fiction. But Harffy reapplies this theme to great effect after he kicks off the book with a cracker of an opening line, which instantly sets a dark, mysterious tone to proceedings:
‘It had been a good morning until Dunston found the corpse’
Therein also lies an immediate introduction to the novel’s protagonist, Dunston. All we know at the start of the book is that Dunston is an old warrior. He’s also one who lives like a hermit alongside the woods with his one-eyed dog Odin. Personally speaking, I found it easy to identify with a character who is tired of the world and has chosen to turn his back on it. Yet following the discovery of the corpse, Dunston and Odin also come across the dead man’s daughter Aedwen, hiding away in the forest. The old warrior is left with no choice but to take her under his wing. This also means that he must eventually also mingle again with other people. Which is something that Dunston doesn’t find easy:
“At times, when the winter wind bit the skin, and food was scarce; when the nights were long and the days short and brittle with ice and snow, Dunston would ask himself if he had chosen the right path for his life. Wouldn’t he have been better off finding a new wife to tend to his needs? At moments like that he yearned for the company of others. Now, listening to Ceolwald’s inane and incessant chatter, he was sure he had chosen wisely when he had made his home amongst the trees of Sealhwudu”
Paragraphs like this are great at highlighting Dunston’s independent spirit. Before long he finds himself having to heavily rely on this quality, when the authorities who should assist him and Aedwen instead turn on them both. In a stunning turn of events, Dunston and Aedwen are forced to form an unlikely pairing. Together they engage in a desperate struggle to evade unjust accusations and punishments, while also trying to find out the true cause behind the horrific murder of Aedwen’s father.
Harffy creates some nasty, dangerous antagonists who add a lot of tension to this well-crafted and well-researched tale. Dunston also has to contend with his old, creaking body, so that the reader is often left asking: does the once great warrior still have what it takes to overcome his greatest challenge yet? In this respect, there are echoes of Gemmell’s Druss in Dunston. But both the character’s traits and his background are well crafted by Harffy, so that the old wolf is an original creation that is very engaging. Aedwen is also well developed, and the relationship between the two makes for some touching and heart-warming stuff, without ever being soppy. My reading was also enhanced by the author’s great command of language, which is both evocative and stirring. All of which contributes to a tense finish that will keep the reader glued to the pages.
This is the second book I’ve read by Matthew Harffy, and it’s great to once again witness him breathing so much life and suspense into the historical adventure genre. Wolf Of Wessex is a five on five star read. It possesses a great story arc, interesting characters and a highly satisfying conclusion.
Read Wolf of Wessex by Matthew Harffy