Thursday, July 17, 2014

Theresa Tomlinson's The Tribute Bride, an exciting novel about a 7th-century royal woman

Acha of Deira, who lived during the early 7th century in what is now the north-east of England, received only scant mention in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, her status shown only in relation to the men around her. So has been the case with many women throughout time. Through historical fiction, writers can reanimate their stories, imagining their perspectives and giving readers a good sense of what their lives may have been like.

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.


  1. Looking for more information on the author and the book it's stated that she's "a twice Carnegie-nominated author," which means she's a YA writer, which is important to know -- at least for me -- for deciding to read this novel, as YA fiction is so not my cuppa! :)

    It would help this reader at least to avoid many disappointments if the YA information was included by publishers and authors. I cannot count how often I get a few pages into a novel and then, and only then, do I see it's YA fiction, as there's nothing on the cover to indicate it, and the reviewers don't say it either. (This applies equally to religiously themed fiction!)

    Love, C.

    1. This novel doesn't say that it's YA fiction because it isn't. :) My blog primarily covers adult-level historical fiction, so you can be sure I'd have mentioned it if the novel was written for a younger audience. That said, as you've seen, the author has written many other works for children which have been critically acclaimed.

      A year and a half ago I'd reviewed Theresa Tomlinson's first historical novel for adults, the historical mystery A Swarming of Bees. I believe it could be enjoyed by teens equally as well, but The Tribute Bride would be most appropriate for adult readers (and possibly some mature YAs).

  2. Even though "Tribute Bride" isn't described as YA, for me it still had the feel of a novel more at the YA/Adult cross-over level than straight adult fiction.

  3. I received a personal note from Theresa Tomlinson, who was having trouble commenting here so asked if I could post this comment on her behalf:

    "I’m absolutely delighted with this review from Sarah Johnson. I couldn’t ask for more.

    "I note that there are comments appearing from some readers suggesting that both the novels that I’ve published recently are more suitable for Young Adults. I would be happy to think that these books might appeal to teenagers as well as adults. I seek for clarity and simplicity in story telling - this is my aim and to me this is good writing, and indeed it is the only way I can write. However, as I get older, I find that I want to explore adult themes, take my time, and enjoy detailed descriptions of place. I'm trying to expand my work to take in an adult readership, but I understand that no style of writing can be to everyone’s taste. This is simply me telling stories from our fascinating past, in the best way that I’m capable of, and my hope is that they will appeal to anyone!"

  4. I think I'd better add that my comment on the style of this novel doesn't mean that I didn't enjoy "Tribute Bride" very much - far from it. Theresa excels in creating a believable, complex "Dark Age" world and developing both depth and warmth in the relationships between her characters, especially as Sarah noted, within her female network.