“The politics of marriage appeared to be every bit as complicated as the politics of kings,” Emma thinks, and she’s absolutely right. She is meant to cement an alliance between King Æthelred and her brother Richard, Duke of Normandy, in their mutual defense against the Danes, but Richard doesn’t intend to keep his end of the bargain. Even more, Emma’s intended husband is a much older man with seven living sons who mistrusts everyone and remains tormented by his martyred brother’s death.
The author incorporates a shrewd use of perspective. Emma’s youth, resilience, and strength of will are revealed from her standpoint; at the same time, sensual noblewoman Elgiva of Northampton, one of her rivals, jealously observes how Emma's political savvy and genuine nature earn her the devotion of England’s clergy and commoners. Emma is a bright vision in a grim, unsettling world, and her remarkable journey to maturity and power progresses credibly.
While he isn’t really admirable or even likeable, Æthelred’s character makes for a fascinating study of guilt and motivation. The fourth viewpoint comes from Æthelred’s eldest son, Athelstan – there are many similar names here, but the people are easily distinguishable within the story’s context – a young man who can’t ever win with his father and who finds himself drawn to Emma (and vice versa).
The novel presents a panoramic view of the times that's full of memorable images of dwellings and landscapes, from the intricately carved oak beams at the royal court at Winchester to the Danes’ brutal siege of Exeter, an event that serves as the catalyst for much of the later action. Unlike many other novels about English royalty, too, this one gives readers a welcome glimpse of the countryside far from London. Occasional excerpts from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a major source for the historical backdrop, add texture to the overall picture.
Shadow on the Crown gets my unqualified recommendation, and it’s clear by the end that Emma’s story has only begun. The otherworldly foretelling imagined in the prologue hasn’t yet come true, for one, but even knowing the basics of the history, I can’t wait to see how these four characters’ entangled stories will play out.
Shadow on the Crown was published in February by Viking (hb, $27.95 or $29.50 Can, 416pp). HarperCollins UK will publish it in June (hb, £14.99, 432pp).