Be My Valentine Week
Book: Shadow on the Crown by Patricia Bracewell (NEW Febraury 2013)
How appropriate it is that the publisher, Viking, should market Shadow on the Crown, set in the days when Vikings raided the English coast and Normans made uneasy treaties with the Danes to keep their coasts safe along the “Narrow Sea” — the English Channel.
I do enjoy historic novels, and when I travel, I always want to know what happened in those places long ago. As an American, it is a bit mind-boggling to be reading about a Queen who lived one thousand years ago. That in itself is romantic, then add in a forbidden romance, and you have a good Valentine book.
Would I want to live in those times? No way. Not even as royalty. If you ever get to the place where you take your cushy modern life for granted, you can cure your hubris by reading about the hardships of life around the turn of the century (that is, the 10th century into the 11th century). Patricia Bracewell’s well-researched novel takes a lesser known figure from the time of the Anglo-Saxon chronicles and brings her to life on these pages.
Not only is Emma’s life exciting and her forbidden romance intriguing as related in Shadow on the Crown, but the real Queen Emma had commissioned the story of her life to be written, and it still exists. That account leaves out a large chunk of Emma’s life. Enter Bracewell, with a novelists’ imagination, to fill in the blanks.
Most of the characters are real people, and passages from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles introduce each section of the novel, which lets us know that the major events really happened. The novelist fills in the blanks in history with plausible adventures and distinctive characters. The King of England, Aethelred II, presents by far the most complex and fascinating character. Beset with superstitious dread of ghosts and distrust of everyone around him (panic attacks, we would say), he would be an object of pity, were it not for his cruelty to his own family members. Even the feared Forkbeard, king of the Danes, is drawn as a combination of human failings and understandable traits.
Here is an example of the way that one of the advisers to the king is presented to us, through Emma’s thoughts:
He was not an easy man to deal with, or even to look at, this Aelfhelm. His face was seamed and scarred, with large, irregular features–the kind of face that frightened small children. His wild black mane of hair hung to near his shoulders, and his thick beard was shot through with streaks of white. It had always astonished her that such a man could have sired three such beautiful creatures as Elgiva and her brothers.
He was built like a bear, and he had a belligerent manner, cowering to no one, not even the king.
As for plot and the romance, royals make political marriages, the King has a mistresses (or mistresses), everything hangs on whether the Queen will bear a son, people fall in love with the wrong people, and the Danes in their dragon ships are a constant threat–and eventually a real enemy. We watch to see how the King and Emma survive and whose love will conquer. In a sense, this is as much a coming-of-age novel as My One Inch Square of Alaska (that we talked about two days ago) as we watch Emma grow from a young teen bride to a seasoned political force.
Adding to the authenticity, medieval language peppers the pages, but a glossary in the front translates the terms for us, from atheling (throne worthy–son of an Anglo-Saxon king) to wyrd (fate or destiny).The question of one’s fate plays an important role in the book, both as Emma ponders her own wyrd, and as the athelings seek advice from an old woman who reminds the reader of the witches in Macbeth, and again reminding us of how belief in the supernatural vied with Christianity in these early days.
It is a great credit to Bracewell’s skill that she has been able to transport us to the life among medieval royalty with so many details of daily life and with a sprawling cast of characters without confusing the reader. And her story telling drew me so deep into the book, that I had to remind myself that I was supposed to be analyzing as I read. I enjoyed the story too much to want to think about HOW she was enchanting me. Perhaps she called upon a bit of that medieval magic herself.
But don’t worry. If you don’t get enough of Emma in Shadow on the Crown, Patricia Bracewell is writing two more novels based on Emma’s life to follow this one.
Would you like to live as a queen in Medieval England?
Note: The publisher, Viking, provided me with a review copy but my opinions are always my own. Links here to Amazon make it convenient for you to buy from Amazon, but also help A Traveler’s Library, as we get a few cents from each purchase you make.
Photos: The photo of the Viking boat is my own and was taken in Normandy at the Bayeux Tapestry Museum. The other photos are from Flickr, and are linked to the photographer’s page. Each is used with a Creative Commons license.