Thursday, March 13, 2014

An Anglo-Saxon Queen

Although I understand why it is popular, I am really tired of front covers that feature beautiful women in gowns with tousled hairdos. At first, these covers were kind of fun, but now they’re overdone. Every historical fiction, Young Adult, and inspirational fiction book aimed at women features these covers. When I found the book, book Shadow on the Crown by Patricia Bracewell I nearly skipped over it, but I read the description and the cover was a wee bit different than the average billowing skirt novel. Although I may be tired of the bedazzled women on covers, I couldn’t resist this book, so my quest into 11th century England began!

Emma is the daughter of the late Duke Richard of Normandy. She is an intelligent, lovely, moral young woman who must wait on her brother, the current Duke, leisure as to when and whom to marry. To Emma’s surprise, her brother makes a very fortuitous marriage arrangement between her and the widowed King of England, Æthelred. This marriage will bring Richard money and stature, and Æthelred a union with Normandy and the promise that the Normans will stop allowing Danish Viking ships to shelter their boats in Norman harbors. Emma is crowned queen of a land whose people she doesn’t know and who mistrust her because of her foreign allegiances. The story unfolds as Emma discovers the hardships of a loveless marriage, gaining and losing power and influence, and caring for her people and her newly inherited lands. But the Danish threat always lingers.

Sometimes historical fiction delves too much into detail and I find myself pushing to get through a book. However, Shadow was a compelling novel. With what little detail there is about Queen Emma and this period in time, Bracewell created a stunning array of characters that catch the attention and a plot worth sinking your teeth into. The major characters all get first person time in the novel, so the reader gets some one-on-one time with Emma, Æthelred, the King’s son, and Emma’s rival. It can be messy to write in this fashion, but Bracewell made it enjoyable to get in the head of major characters, see their perspectives, motivations, and feelings. It makes it harder to hate the bad ones. Emma is the anchor of this novel. She is a compassionate, strong woman who knows what she must do and takes steps to gain power and influence in her new kingdom. This novel really struck home with how abhorrent the gender roles were in the 11th century. Women were truly looked at as baby-makers and servants. They had to shut up and put up. Although her main role is to have a male heir, Emma wants to be influential. She wants to be a Queen worthy of her crown.

This is, I believe, the first book in what is to be a trilogy. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a historical record of the Anglo-Saxon rule prior to the Norma Invasion, outlines some of Emma’s life, but almost nothing about Emma’s marriage to Æthelred is stated in the chronicle, so Bracewell could get creative. I truly enjoyed getting to know an era that has very little written about it in fiction. Although the novel could be dark because of the way people were treated, especially women, the warring, and the mores, it was a compelling read. Emma is an intriguing and admirable Queen, and I look forward to the remaining books in this series. If you are a historical fiction reader, I highly suggest you give this one a gander.

For something more mature, but still royal, try Philippa Gregory's The White Queen, the first of several novels in the "Cousins' War" series. 

~Kristin M.

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