New Welsh Review
The Short Knife
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Elen Caldecott is an author with an arsenal of children’s books to her name, though she has also worked in a variety of different fields, including archeology. Her varied career experience has no doubt helped her pen her newest novel, The Short Knife, which takes place several centuries ago when the Romans withdrew from Britain, giving way to the Angles and Saxons to take hold of the island.
The novel is written in a lyrical voice that flows off the page, but also speaks of authenticity – Caldecott skillfully utilises her knowledge of language and history to create a believable setting of Britain during the Dark Ages. The narration, despite taking place so long ago, transcends time, as readers can still see their own reflection in the characters.
Mai and Haf are sisters, living on a peaceful farm with their father, until Saxon warriors come and set fire to their home. Forced to flee, the family sets on a course to find Gwrtheyrn – a man said to give refuge to those of true British descent. Upon arrival, however, nothing is as it seems in Gwrtheyrn’s gated utopia, as Mai had expected. Once again, the two sisters are forced to take action and sacrifice themselves in order to survive.
Mai and Haf’s relationship is the backbone of this novel, as well as the driving force for the majority of the plot. Because the sisters are almost polar opposites, the pair often end up butting heads as their personalities clash. Regardless of their shared stubbornness, however, both girls are incredibly strong and multi-faceted characters, while the universaility of the struggle they face makes empathising with them easy.
Young Mai is a hot-headed girl, determined to fight the Saxons at all costs. She often acts rashly or speaks out of turn, which gets her into trouble on numerous occasions. However, like a lone warrior, Mai holds her ground whenever someone opposes her. In the British camp, she develops a resentment towards her sister as Mai doesn’t understand how Haf could set aside her Christian beliefs in order to gain favour with Gwrtheyrn, and rebels against her.
However, that is truly where Mai’s strengths lie – that stubbornness and anger she wields like weapons help her survive even after being captured by Saxons. In the second half of the novel we see Mai slowly mature – she learns the power of language and sacrifice as she adopts the Saxon tongue:
I am the words I speak. Saxon Mai is mouse-meek and scurrying. British Mai dreamed of fighting for her people. It’s the words that make us, the stories we tell ourselves.
Meanwhile, Haf holds a different kind of strength – hers lies within her mind. Comparable to Shahrazad in The Arabian Nights, she tells stories from the Bible that gain her Gwrtheyrn’s favour. Through her ‘honey smiles and tall tales’, Haf manages to make herself indispensable, thus, providing shelter and food for her family. Her approach is much more subtle than Mai’s, as Haf is cunning with her words, and doesn’t have the same moral scruples as her sister:
She was quicker at knowing what was in the minds of others than me, the few times we’d been to the market together, I’d seen that: she easily bartered down where I would have taken the trade.
Caldecott expertly portrays two different types of character that are both strong in their own way. It is easy to sympathise with both Mai and Haf as they do what they can in the name of survival. In the end, the sisters are not so different as both are united by the same goal – saving their family, whether it be by blood or personal bond.
Near the end of the novel, Caldecott stuns with a plot-twist worthy of comparison with George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. This event brings out the best in Mai and Haf – their determination. Now loyal to two completely different factions – Haf’s attachment to Gwrtheyrn and Mai’s newfound sister-figure in a fellow British slave girl, the two find new meaning to the word family as they race to save the people they love.
Desi Tsvetokovawas this spring’s reviewer-in-residence, in a new partnership with Swansea University’s College of Arts and Humanities.