By Author / Illustrator
Andersen Press Ltd
Paperback / softback
It is the year 454AD. The Roman Empire has withdrawn from Britain, throwing it into the chaos of the Dark Ages. Mai has been kept safe by her father and her sister, Haf. But when Saxon warriors arrive at their farm, the family is forced to flee to the hills where British warlords lie in wait. Can Mai survive in a dangerous world where speaking her mother tongue might be deadly, and where even the people she loves the most can’t be trusted?
Read a Q&A with Elen Caldecott
The Short Knife - now available in paperback - is set in the 5th century. The Roman Empire has withdrawn from Britain, throwing it into the chaos of the Dark Ages. Young Mai and her sister Haf live a peaceful existence on their small farm with their father, until the day their lives are shattered by the arrival of Saxon warriors.
Their world is left in ruins as their farm is set alight and all their food provisions are stolen. Injured and fleeing for their lives, the girls need urgent help for their father and must find a way to survive. With nothing to trade, no belongings, no home and with the father injured, the family are taken in by a camp of Britons which is ruled by the Lord Gwrtheyrn. He needs warriors and skilled men; girls are of little use to him. He does allow them to stay but with the promise that as soon as their father is well, he will fight for the camp.
Haf begins to make herself useful in the Great Hall. She uses her wits and guile to try and keep her family safe and fed. However, young Mai struggles to fit into Briton camp life and runs away, only to be captured and enslaved by Saxon invaders. Now, she must learn to speak and understand a new language and learn new ways and customs if she has any chance of surviving.
This book is a triumph. It is beautifully written and, by the end of the novel, we are really routing for our female protagonist. It does reflect the harsh reality of the lives of women and girls at this time. It focuses on belonging and family at a time of division and conflict. I would recommend it for readers aged 12+.
390 pages / Ages 12+ / Reviewed by Julie Broadbent, school librarian
Suggested Reading Age 11+