Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Book Review: The Forever Queen by Helen Hollick

Synopsis from Chapters.indigo.ca

What kind of woman becomes the wife of two kings, and the mother of two more?

Saxon England, 1002. Not only is Æthelred a failure as King, but his young bride, Emma of Normandy, soon discovers he is even worse as a husband. When the Danish Vikings, led by Swein Forkbeard and his son, Cnut, cause a maelstrom of chaos, Emma, as Queen, must take control if the Kingdom-and her crown-are to be salvaged. Smarter than history remembers, and stronger than the foreign invaders who threaten England's shores, Emma risks everything on a gamble that could either fulfill her ambitions and dreams or destroy her completely.

Emma, the Queen of Saxon England, comes to life through the exquisite writing of Helen Hollick, who shows in this epic tale how one of the most compelling and vivid heroines in English history stood tall through a turbulent fifty-year reign of proud determination, tragic despair, and triumph over treachery.

My Review

4 Stars

In The Forever Queen, novelist Helen Hollick brings to life a period in history not often explored by  novelists -- pre-Conquest England.   Starting in the early 11th century, this novel spans approximately forty years and covers the reign of four English kings - Ethelred (the Unready), Edmund Ironside, Cnut and Harthacnut - and one queen - Emma, whose reign lasts almost the entirety of the book and gives it its title.

Although I have rated this novel four out of five stars, I did so with some misgivings.   One of the strengths of the novel was Hollick's ability to create a strong sense of time and place.   She accomplished this through use of descriptive prose, prose that leaves the reader feeling as if they are experiencing the story first hand rather than through the pages of a book.  Nevertheless, on several occasions I felt the descriptions were overdone, detracting from the story and bogging the book down. I also thought the flow of the novel, especially in the early chapters, was jarring at times and, as a result, I occasionally needed to revisit sentences or even entire paragraphs to ensure I was following the story accurately.    Lastly, while I'm a fan of big, epic works of historical fiction, at over 600 pages I thought The Forever Queen was too long, as there were many scenes which provided little or no value to the progression of the story.    

You may ask why, when I seem to have several issues with this novel,  did I rate it so highly?  Simple really.   Whatever my issues with the writing style, the history conveyed in this novel was absolutely fascinating and kept me reading.   This was the first historical novel I'd read set in England on the eve of the Conquest and it is evident that Hollick did her historical homework.  This novel taught me a lot about a period in history I previously knew little about and managed to do so in an entertaining manner.     In the case of my overall rating of The Forever Queen, the historical detail of this novel was simply so vivid that it overshadowed my issues with writing style and length. 

The story started in The Forever Queen continues in its sequel, I Am the Chosen King.

Recommended for anyone interesting in learning about English history right before the Norman Conquest.