Theresa Tomlinson’s new The Tribute Bride is the only novel I know of that focuses on Acha, and it’s an excellent one. It stays within the recorded facts about political events and relationships while telling a drama-filled story of exile, ambition, retribution, and the lasting power of family and friendship.
After floods devastate the lands of Deira, ruining its people’s hopes for successful crops, Acha’s father King Aelle gives her to his overlord, King Athelfrid of nearby Bernicia, in place of the grain he would normally send as tribute. Called “The Trickster” even by his own men, Athelfrid is a handsome and dynamic ruler who accepts her as his secondary wife – and who expects her to produce the sons his queen has been unable to. Queen Bebba, a beautiful Pictish-born princess, is less than thrilled by her presence though has no choice but to accept Acha as a sister-wife.
Although Acha has little control over her living arrangements, her marriage, or much else, she acts in accordance with her difficult role as a peace-weaver bride. Although she’s distrusted by many at first, her natural instincts toward compassion and generosity are her saving grace. Acha may be a woman in a male-dominated country, but her position grants her critical importance, and she develops friendships in places where only enmity might have existed otherwise. The novel shows how women of her time must form their own networks – to use a modern term – to help them survive and even influence the situations men create.
The vast, rolling countryside, with its vestiges of past Roman settlements and numerous hill-forts, is beautifully described. Tomlinson provides a rich and varied picture of Anglo-Saxon life: the sights and smells within the timbered halls, hand-fasting ceremonies and other worship rites for the strange local goddess called "Goat-headed Freya," and chilling prophecies fulfilled in blood. The back cover calls the timeframe covered by the novel “one of history’s bloodiest eras,” and for good reason. I hadn’t been familiar with all of the deadly wars and rivalries at the time (if you aren’t either, avoid Wikipedia!) and was shocked at how events played out.
The Tribute Bride is a solid, exciting retelling of a period crucial to Britain’s formation and of women’s hidden contributions to history. It was published by Acorn Digital Press in April in paperback (£7.99) and as an e-book ($8.99). Thanks to the author for sending me a review copy.