It has always annoyed me that Bernard Cornwell and his publishers considered it acceptable to call his 2008 novel of Saxon England ‘Sword Song’, when that had been the title Rosemary Sutcliff had chosen for her final historical novel ten years earlier! It shows a disappointing lack of respect by one writer of another in the same genre, historical fiction.
Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword Song was a novel set in Viking times. It was in handwritten manuscript form on her desk when she died. I recall transcribing it from her elphin-scrawl handwriting. It was intriguing painstakingly to follow the story of Bjarni as he was cast out of the Norse settlement in the Angles’ Land for an act of oath-breaking, to spend five years sailing the west coast of Scotland and witnessing the feuds of the clan chiefs living there.
I was pleased that in The Times newspaper, in August 1997, Sarah Johnson called the opening of Sword Song a ‘stunner’: ‘beat that Melvin Burgess!’ she wrote. However she found the story ‘meandering’. But I loved that meandering, in and out of the Dublin slave market, for example.
… Rosemary Sutcliff’s … posthumously published Dark Ages saga Sword Song is packed with precisely described Viking sea battles and sacrifices in a linguistic smorgasbord of thongs, thralls and fiery-bearded men. I was never a Sutcliff fan as a child, tiring too quickly of the sun glinting off the halberds of people with names that sound like Haggis Bogtrotterson, but the opening of Sword Song is a stunner: a sixteen-year-old boy is exiled from his settlement for the manslaughter of a monk who had kicked his dog. Beat that, Melvin Burgess.
Regrettably, the story quavers thereafter, meandering around the coast of Britain as young Bjarni sells his fighting skills to one fiery-beardy after another, but the dense historical detail and rich colours are all still there.
Source: The Times, August 23, 1997