When King Æthelred II of England loses his wife Ælfgifu, he looks across the Narrow Sea to Normandy for his next bride. Duke Richard of Normandy has two unmarried sisters and it’s the younger, fifteen-year-old Emma, who is chosen. In return, Æthelred requests that Richard closes the harbours of Normandy to Swein Forkbeard and his Vikings, the enemies of the Anglo-Saxons.
From the moment Emma arrives in England in the year 1002 and learns that her new husband has not bothered to come and meet her, she knows her marriage is not going to be a happy one. Soon Emma hears of the rumours surrounding Æthelred’s claim to the throne and the older half-brother who died under suspicious circumstances and she begins to understand that she has married a troubled, paranoid man. But dealing with her husband is not the only problem she faces; she also has to cope with the hostility of her stepsons, the æthelings (heirs to the throne) Athelstan, Ecbert and Edmund. Because she has actually been crowned Queen of England, any children of Emma’s will inherit the throne ahead of the æthelings – the children of Æthelred’s previous wife, who was never crowned.
Another person unhappy with Emma’s arrival is Elgiva, daughter of the Northumbrian ealdorman Ælfhelm, who was hoping to become Queen herself. Elgiva soon becomes one of the villains of the novel, consumed with jealousy and plotting Emma’s downfall. The only bright spot in Emma’s life is her relationship with Athelstan, the eldest ætheling, whose feelings for her are changing as he gets to know her better. But with a brutal, violent husband and a woman who will do anything to steal her crown, Emma comes to realise that the only way she will be able to wield any power is to have a child of her own as quickly as possible, a son who will be the future King of England.
I loved Shadow on the Crown. The writing is beautiful and it’s hard to believe it’s Patricia Bracewell’s first novel. It also made a nice change to find an author choosing to write about a period of history that isn’t covered in historical fiction very often. Before reading this book I had only a vague knowledge of this period and I enjoyed learning more about life in the early years of the eleventh century – an era that is fascinating to read about, but definitely not one I would have wanted to live through myself! It’s difficult to comment on the accuracy of a novel when you know so little about the period concerned but the book does include an interesting author’s note explaining which parts of the story are based on fact. Bracewell has used the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as one of her sources and includes some excerpts throughout the novel, which adds to the feeling of authenticity.
Sometimes historical fiction can work well when it’s written in the first person but this one is written in the third person from several different viewpoints and I think it was the right decision. It allowed us to see events from more than one perspective – from Emma’s, Elgiva’s, Athelstan’s and Æthelred’s – and while I liked Emma from the beginning, being able to get inside the other characters’ heads meant I could understand them better. Æthelred’s feelings of guilt and terror, haunted by the death of his older half-brother, Edward; Athelstan’s inner conflicts, torn between love for Emma and his desire to be king; Elgiva’s envy of Emma and her bitterness at not becoming queen – being given some insights into all of these things helped me to see why these characters behaved the way they did.
Shadow on the Crown is the first in a trilogy of books about Emma of Normandy and I’m already looking forward to the second one. This book only covers the period between 1001 and 1005, so there is still a lot more of Emma’s story to come!
I received a copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley for review