YA Review: The Short Knife

Title: The Short Knife
Author: Elen Caldecott
Edition: Paperback (ARC)
Rating: 4/5

This is a fascinating book. The story is set in AD454-455. Britain has been deserted by the Roman Empire, and invaded by Saxons. Mai’s father tells stories about the Roman soldiers who kept the British people safe, and about the towns they left behind, but Mai’s world is different. There is danger in the towns, and danger from the Saxon invaders. Mai learns the power of the invaders when an encounter with three Saxon men changes her life, and the lives of her family, forever.

This is a story about family and community – love, betrayal, and the importance of the family you build for yourself. It’s a story about living with fear – fear of an occupying force, and of the chaos left behind when they leave. It’s a story about finding the strength to fight when it feels as if things can’t get any worse. It’s a story about choices and consequences, and learning to take control of a life where other people hold the power.

It’s also a story about language and identity, and the significance of speaking your mother tongue when your language is forbidden. The author weaves Welsh words and turns of phrase into the narrative, giving the reader a sense of the beauty of Mai’s mother tongue, and the sense of loss when she is expected to use Saxon words instead. It also creates a sense of difference, of history, and of place. This isn’t a modern-day novel. Mai’s world is Roman, Saxon, and British. Her concerns are those of a farmer’s daughter – how to trade their produce, how to store food for the winter, and how to stay alive when the world turns wild.

Mai is a strong, willful, engaging protagonist. She’s young, she makes mistakes, and she understands the limits of her power. The story follows her as she finds the strength to survive again and again as the world changes around her. Her narration is beautiful, with moments of poetry and pin-sharp descriptions of people, settings, and feelings.

There are some uncomfortable elements to the story, but they are entirely in keeping with the lawless, chaotic setting. The shocking events add to the feeling of difference and alienation – this is a historical novel, and historical rules apply to the characters and their experiences. At times the action reminded me of postapocalyptic dystopian stories, but in Mai’s world there is no hope of rebuilding society, or restoring the comforts readers will take for granted. Mai and her fellow Britons have lost their place in the Roman Empire. There is no expectation that they will be able to recreate the luxuries of Rome, and there is no modern technology to aspire to. The author is successful in transporting the reader into Mai’s home, and giving context to her experiences and decisions.

I grew up in a town built on Roman ruins, and I have always been interested life in Roman Britain. This book shows the aftermath and the ruins. It gives an unusual glimpse into the lives of the people left behind, while addressing modern concerns of identity, oppression, and cultural expression. It’s a historical novel with highly contemporary themes, and it’s not afraid to examine the darker side of our common humanity.

Have you read The Short Knife? What did you think of the story? Were you transported back in time? Do you think you could have survived in AD454? Click through to the full blog to access the comments section, and share your thoughts! No spoilers, though – you can post those on GoodReads!

Review cross-posted to GoodReads.

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