The Short Knife

The Short Knife

By Author / Illustrator

Elen Caldecott


Historical Fiction

Age range(s)



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 The Roman Empire has withdrawn from Britain, throwing it into the chaos of the Dark Ages.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?

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 The Roman Empire has withdrawn from Britain, throwing it into the chaos of the Dark Ages.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+


The Short Knife is set in ancient Britain, some four decades after the Romans have withdrawn, as a new threat is invading the country in the form of the Saxons. Mai, her older sister Haf and their father farm the land, living quietly, till three strangers turn up at the farm speaking a strange language - Saxon - looking for food and shelter. Their peaceful existence shattered, the family is forced to go on the run through lands they are unfamiliar with. With their dad injured, the sisters have to take the lead and initiative, eventually securing temporary refuge in a British hill fort.

Though these are their 'people', the sisters feel no connection to their fellow Britons but have to make themselves useful to survive and get help for their dad. As Haf quickly adapts to the reality of the new situation, Mai struggles to fit in and change and wants to escape. Once she does, Mia finds herself captured and taken to a Saxon village, where servants and slaves are referred to as 'Welsh' (or 'foreign') and Saxon is the only accepted language.

It's here that Mai starts to recover from her journey, working with a group of women including Sara and Viola, who will have a huge impact on her life, especially as people and events from Mai's past catch up with her and the summer solstice and marriage of the Saxon chief's daughter, Rowan, draws near.

The Short Knife is told from two different dates - one starting at the summer solstice of AD 455, which stretch out over an evening, and the other starts at autumn AD 454, and comes forward till meeting the summer solstice. The story switches between these two times which helps to make this a really exciting and thought-provoking adventure, as it's clear from the first chapter of the book set at the Solstice that something major has happened in Mai's life during which her sister is about to give birth.

The back story is gradually filled in and it's here that you find out snippets of history too - life in a hill fort and Saxon village, differing religions, helping bring this historical period to life.

I really enjoyed this book - and I didn't expect to, not being a reader of historical fiction. But this booked just grabbed me from the start and as the story developed, pulled me further into it. Going backwards and forwards in time for the story really helped with this - I wanted to know what had happened in the past to make sense of the solstice events, and there were twists and turns in the plot to make this a brilliant adventure, which all built up to a thrilling climax on the Solstice eve!

The main characters are very well written, from older sister Haf shrewdly doing what's needed to survive, and Mai, not fully understanding the changes in the world around her, being a bit of sulky teenager at times. It was interesting to see how these characters changed and developed through the story, a story where all the main characters were women.

I loved the bits of history I picked up from the novel and the use of language helped place the story in another time and place. Caldecott's descriptions are wonderful - I could feel the spirit of the dead women in the Roman tomb clawing at Mai; the fabric of the clothes people were wearing; and the emotions of the characters.

The setting of this book may be in the past but the issues it raises and deals with are very real and current - identity, migration, refugees, Britishness, women in society and changing society, making this book very thought-provoking and useful for cross curricular work in schools.

This is a brilliant read, and if you've never tried historical fiction before, I would encourage you to try this novel.

400 pages / Ages 12+ / Reviewed by Stephen Leitch, school librarian

Suggested Reading Age 11+


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