Monday, April 15, 2013

Book review: Shadow on the Crown, by Patricia Bracewell

Shadow on the Crown may be Patricia Bracewell's debut, but the writing is that of an accomplished author with a skilled use of language and fine sense of dramatic timing. She uses both to outstanding effect in her story of Emma of Normandy, a courageous young woman charged with an impossible task. At only fifteen in the year 1001, Emma is chosen over her sickly elder sister to become the “peaceweaver” bride of Æthelred II, King of England.

“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).

10 comments:

  1. " “The politics of marriage appeared to be every bit as complicated as the politics of kings,” Emma thinks, and she’s absolutely right." "

    Well, wouldn't she understand that the politics of marriage for one of her position is the politics of kings? I.e. politics no matter what, if only of her own family uniting with another family.

    Weren't girls of her sort taught their function in life was this sort of thing and the heirs to it they produced?

    Love, C.

    P.S. upon reflection the above sounds cranky, and I apologize. I am cranky, having spent the entire day at the 9/11 breathing clinic and emerged to learn of what happened in Boston.

    IOW, it has nothing to do with you. And here I thought by going to historical fiction matters I could escape ....

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    1. I understand - I think it's impossible to escape the news from Boston today.

      Had to look back at the book (which I had read back in February) to add some context to the quote, but it's at a point where Emma's leaving her childhood behind, and she's beginning to observe her sister-in-law's marriage to her brother with new eyes. Of course it has a double meaning that applies to her as well. So yes, she was brought up to understand that. But it's another thing to see it firsthand and be old enough to understand what it might mean -- how difficult and complicated it can be, in other words, to make a marriage alliance succeed. If that makes sense.

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    2. It does make sense. :) Thank you!

      Love, C.

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  2. I'm reading this one right now, and really liking it.

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  3. That shift in perspective is interesting to writers and I think to everybody: someone once said that we can see it close to home when we think how differently we would be described by each individual member of our family.

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  4. Just so you know :) -- Last night I stayed up until nearly 3 AM finishing this book.

    And when I got to the bit you quoted, o my yes, within the context it meant something very different from what I'd taken it to be out of context.

    Love, C.

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  5. Well, staying up until 3am to finish is a good sign... :)

    I probably should have added a bit more context in the review for the quote. It was so apropos I couldn't resist using it!

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  6. I'm looking forward to the next installment.

    Love, C.

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  7. It took me a month to finish the audible book but I am glad I listened to it. The narrator did the story justice.

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