Shadow on the Crown by Patricia Bracewell
Publishing Date: February 2013
Genre: historical fiction
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.
Emma, sister of Duke Richard of Normandy, is sent to become England’s queen and wife of King Æthelred II — otherwise known as Æthelred the Unready. Hoping this marriage would bring about peace and trust between Normandy and England, and an allied front against the Vikings, Emma quickly forges alliances with nobles and clergy to solidify respect and honor due her. As months and years pass, and the threat of Danish ships striking England with each passing season, Emma begins to feel her power over Æthelred and England rise and fall.
The first of a well-researched and excellently crafted trilogy, Bracewell sheds light on the first queen of England that shaped the history we know today. She is the aunt of William the Conqueror and mother of Edward the Confessor. While the names and events are taken directly from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Bracewell took liberties with theories floating around in historical debates and fictionalizes the missing pieces. In her author’s note, she states which bits are heavily fictionalized — affairs, character personalities — and which have some bits of truth that needed to be fleshed out. For anyone interested in English history, this is the novel to read.
The language is steeped in historical accuracy. Old English names, such as Æthelstan, Ælfgifu, Wulfhilde, and Ælfric, as well as Old English words, like wyrd, ætheling, cyrtel, and skald, help to shape the culture and place the reader deep in the early 1000s, when kings were chosen by God, prayers and Christian strength could change the turn of events, and pagan prophecies and curses loomed around every corner. The portions of the book I found difficult to read but understood its historical accuracy dealt with rape and the mistreatment of women. I had to remind myself that women were considered property, sometimes even less than property. Men could rape, hit, throw, and threaten women to get their way, even if the woman was a queen, a lady, a servant, or even a sister or daughter. But I must say, these women knew the power they could have over men, and used it to their advantage. They were angered about their mistreatment (and yes, accepted it, as was true of the times), but always rose up and became stronger from it. Even Emma, after her first experience in the hands of rage, went through a period of self-hate before forming a steel-hard shield around her emotions.
I thought Bracewell’s use of perspective was fantastic, as well. Although the story is about Emma, we also peek into Æthelred’s tortured mind — his mistrust of everyone, the hauntings of his past, his twisted logic — and his son Æthelstan’s torn heart — his love for Emma, his desire to take the throne due to his father’s ill-management of the country. We also peek into Elgiva’s mind, the daughter of the ealdorman of Northumbria, and watch as she tries to make her presence known in the royal court. History has something far different for her in store, and the reader can only assume its her father’s doing. These different perspectives, including Emma’s, allow the reader to see the corruption in royal courts. No one directly states what they are thinking. Every word spoken is masked with hidden meanings, and thus all actions and interpretations are misconstrued. It was interesting to see how twisted Æthelred would misunderstand Emma’s good intentions, or how Emma would misread Æthelstan’s desires.
I am really looking forward to the second and third books. This novel sparked far more interest in English history than I ever thought possible, and now that I know what will happen soon to Emma — and after glimpsing some of those historical people pop up in the book as characters — I want to see how Bracewell weaves history and fiction together to create a beautiful new chronicle of Emma’s life. I highly recommend this book. A wonderful read.