Back in college when I was getting my BA in English Literature I took a linguistics class on Old English. Among being taught to translate OE and finding that it was lovely to articulate guttural sounds of “wergild” and “wyrd”, we also learned about Ӕthelred the Unready. Nice fellow, but first some background.
Ӕthelred was king of England from 978 to 1016. He produced an abundance of male issue and fought ferociously with the Danes in a time when the chill air of the British Isles was misted with English and Danish blood. He also had an elder brother, King Edward, who was murdered when he was 10.
In Patricia Bracewell’s book, he has issues.
Emma of Normandy, the sister of Richard II, Duke of Normandy, is his third wife. Young, beautiful, and, at 15 years old, unprepared for the trials that await her, Emma is Ӕthelred’s latest “wyrd” or fate. (*History geek squee* You will learn some OE words reading Bracewell’s novel. If this is your thing, read on.)
As the protagonist in a tale rife with villains, Emma is a likable character, but she’s no Mary Sue. She marries pluck with poise, intellect with equanimity, and she’s a challenge for her king, who behaves like a spoiled man-child whenever he faces fear or opposition. It’s been ages since I wanted to skewer a character beneath the nearest portcullis, but Ӕthelred is an irredeemable beast.
Fortunately, another villain waits in the shadows, one that has the potential to fascinate. Elgiva is Emma’s constant foe, the femme-fatale who tries to outwit and out-seduce her queen. I warmed up to Elgiva first before gradually thinking the proper punishment for her might be an oubliette. She is a vain, opportunistic witch. This is also her charm. I couldn’t help thinking of Anne Boleyn minus the sympathy factor. Elgiva’s brother and father use her to their advantage, but Elgiva is more than willing to pay any price to ascend to her rightful place to the throne. (This is the problem of believing you will be queen, Elgiva: those thoughts get stuck in your head.)
Ultimately, even though Elgiva is strong-willed, the ethos of the age is against her. This is the hardship every woman in the novel must bear. Athelstan, Ӕthelred’s eldest son and Emma’s love interest, sums it up best when he reflects on his late mother: “Her impact upon her sons and daughters had been of no greater weight than that made by a single snowflake when it touches the earth. She had been but a shadow in their lives, almost invisible in the far larger shadow cast by their father, the king.”
If you’re blissfully unaware of early English history, you’ll wonder if Emma’s fate as potential mother to the crown and queen will be the same. This theme of making one’s mark despite disadvantages is integral to every major character, and Emma gives her best effort. Whether or not she will triumph is the subject of later books, as Shadow on the Crown is a trilogy.
The only real difficulty I had with the novel was the amount of events covered in short frames of time, the effect being the story sometimes had a fast-forward feel. Shadow on the Crown is based on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and the author incorporates periods in Emma’s life which must be largely imagined due to lack of period sources directly related to the queen. The history is vast, and the cast list comprises a big party, to say the least.
Conversely, one of my favorite aspects to Shadow on the Crown is how I frequently recollected other stories: Macbeth (when Ӕthelred is ridden with fraternal guilt) and Le Morte d’Arthur (with Elgiva – Morgan le Fay, Athelstan – Lancelot, Emma – Guinevere, and Ӕthelred – decidely not King Arthur). Whether this was intentional or not, novels that refer to previous literary works have a richness and depth to them and Shadow on the Crown satisfies in this regard.
Bottom line is, if you’ve a soft spot for historicals, particularly about medieval queens and periods seldom explored in fiction, Bracewell’s debut novel is a pleasurable read.
Goodreads Book Description:
A rich tale of power and forbidden love revolving around a young medieval queen
In 1002, fifteen-year-old Emma of Normandy crosses the Narrow Sea to wed the much older King Athelred of England, whom she meets for the first time at the church door. Thrust into an unfamiliar and treacherous court, with a husband who mistrusts her, stepsons who resent her and a bewitching rival who covets her crown, Emma must defend herself against her enemies and secure her status as queen by bearing a son.
Determined to outmaneuver her adversaries, Emma forges alliances with influential men at court and wins the affection of the English people. But her growing love for a man who is not her husband and the imminent threat of a Viking invasion jeopardize both her crown and her life.