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The Short Knife

Written by Elen Caldecott

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The Short Knife Review

Adventure Stories Books of the Month Featured Books for 11+ readers Featured Books for 13+ readers Historical Fiction

A rip-roaring Dark Age epic with contemporary relevance

July 2020 Book of the Month

Set in the author’s native Wales during the dark days of the fifth century, Ellen Caldecott’s The Short Knife is an energetic, edge-of-your-seat page-turner with present-day resonance as 21st-century Britain - island of migrants - faces the challenge of forging an identity independent of continental Europe.


With the Romans compelled to leave Britain after 400 years, the island is on the brink of collapse. Amidst this uncertainty and the chaos of Saxon invasion, thirteen-year-old Mai is cared for by her dad and sister (she lost her mam when she was three), and wrestling with her “anger at the people free to flee into the hills. Anger at all the world and everyone in it. I want to open my mouth and let the fire out, burn it all into blackness.” When Saxon warriors turn up at their farm, the family is forced to flee to the dangerous hills themselves. Mai must cross the threshold from childhood to adulthood if she’s to survive in a hostile world in which speaking in her mother tongue might turn out to be fatal.


The cinematic scene-setting, first person narrative, and succinct, magnetically lyrical style make for a thrilling experience that will hook the most reluctant of readers. Recommended for fans of Caroline Lawrence and Damian Dibben’s The History Keepers series, this offers enlightening insights into British history with fresh flair, and through the eyes of a compelling main character.

Joanne Owen

The Short Knife Synopsis

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 The Roman Empire has withdrawn from Britain, throwing it into the chaos of the Dark Ages.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

The Short Knife Press Reviews

A distinctive and engrossing tale -- David Almond

It is full of thrills and kills ... while not scrimping on plot and character. Caldecott writes with a breezy lyricism ... The story of a divided Britain and the girls' mission to rebuild their family and survive in a country they barely recognise feels relevant and important -- Alex O'Connell - The Times

Bright and real as the midsummer sunlight, and as powerfully drawn as a sharp, short knife -- Hilary McKay

I just loved The Short Knife. Beautifully written, lyrical and powerful - it's a fascinating insight into dark and desperate times which I found utterly absorbing. Grim and gritty but ultimately uplifting - it's a beautiful tribute to the courage and ingenuity of sisters -- Tanya Landman

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All versions of this book

ISBN: 9781783449781
Publication date: 04/03/2021
Publisher: Andersen Press Ltd
Format: Paperback

ISBN: 9781783449798
Publication date: 02/07/2020
Publisher: Andersen Press Ltd
Format: Hardback

Book Information

ISBN: 9781783449798
Publication date: 2nd July 2020
Author: Elen Caldecott
Publisher: Andersen Press Ltd
Format: Hardback
Pagination: 400 pages
Suitable for: 11+ readers, 13+ readers
Genres: Adventure Stories, Historical Fiction
Recommendations: Books of the Month

About Elen Caldecott

Elen Caldecott graduated with an MA in Writing for Young People from Bath Spa University and was highly commended in the PFD Prize for Most Promising Writer for Young People. Before becoming a writer, she was an archaeologist, a nurse, a theatre usher and a museum security guard. Elen's debut novel, How Kirsty Jenkins Stole the Elephant, was shortlisted for the Waterstone's Children's Prize and longlisted for the 2010 Carnegie Award.

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