Thursday, February 14, 2013

Book Review: Shadow on the Crown by Patricia Bracewell


In 1002, fifteen­-year-old Emma of Normandy crosses the Narrow Sea to wed the much older King Athelred of England, whom she meets for the first time at the church door.  Thrust into an unfamiliar and treacherous court, with a husband who mistrusts her, stepsons who resent her and a bewitching rival who covets her crown, Emma must defend herself against her enemies and secure her status as queen by bearing a son.

Determined to outmaneuver her adversaries, Emma forges alliances with influential men at court and wins the affection of the English people. But her growing love for a man who is not her husband and the imminent threat of a Viking invasion jeopardize both her crown and her life.

Based on real events recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Shadow on the Crown introduces readers to a fascinating, overlooked period of history and an unforgettable heroine whose quest to find her place in the world will resonate with modern readers.

Viking Adult | February 7, 2013 | 432 pages

My Review

4 Stars

Set in the early 11th century, Shadow on the Crown, the first book in a planned trilogy from debut novelist Patricia Bracewell, follows the early life and reign of Emma of Normandy, wife and queen to two English kings, as well as the mother of two more. 

Although Emma is the novel's principal character, and it is from her perspective the story is most often told, the narrative also features the perspectives of Emma's husband, English King Athelred, Athelred's son Athalstan, and Elgiva, daughter of the King's most powerful aldorman.  By alternating between these various perspectives Bracewell enables the reader to gain a wider appreciation for the politics and personalities of the English court.  While not particularly vibrant, Emma is nevertheless a well-drawn character, one for whom it is easy to feel sympathy given her loveless marriage and the fact she must navigate through a court that, by virtue of her Norman birth, is suspicious of her loyalties.   While I liked Emma, it is King Athelred who proves the most fascinating character in this novel.  Haunted by the murder of his elder brother, Athelred trusts no one, not even his wife or sons.  Despite the increasing severity and number of Viking raids, Athelred remains unwilling to listen to any council but his own and, as a result, puts his kingdom at risk.  

As clearly evident in this novel, the 11th century was not a particularly good time to be a woman.  Athelred holds little respect for Emma, even though she is his crowned Queen consort, and his dismissal of his young daughters shows what little regard he has for the female sex.  Elgiva, the other key female character in the novel, often suffers brutal treatment at the hands of her father and brothers.  Despite attempts to exert their influence and insert themselves into the halls of power, both Emma and Elgiva are continually held back by the men in their lives.  While Bracewell does a good job conveying certain societal conventions of the age, the novel suffers somewhat given that it doesn't contain a great deal of historical detail.  As a result, the book doesn't always give the reader, especially those already familiar with this era, a particularly strong sense of time.  While the book doesn't go into great depth when it comes to the political maneuverings of Athelred's court, it nevertheless provides a solid introduction for readers unfamiliar with this period of history.  

Well-written and engaging, Shadow on the Crown is recommended to historical fiction readers interested in pre-Conquest English history. 

Note: I received a copy of this novel from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.