Book Review

Shadow on the Crown by Patricia Bracewell Book Review

Shadow on the Crown

Shadow on the Crown: A Novel is the first book in a proposed trilogy. I'm glad to hear there will be more books in the series because I look forward to finding out what happens to Emma, the sister of Richard II Duke of Normandy and wife to Ӕthelred, King of England.

England in the early 11th century was a dangerous place. With the constant threat of Viking attacks, Ӕthelred decides to forge a shaky alliance with Richard II of Normandy by marrying his younger sister Emma. He doesn't fully trust his gamble on Richard, but agrees to crown Emma as queen in order in order to coax Richard's help with the Viking menace. Because Ӕthelred's other sons were born of an uncrowned wife/consort, Emma's future sons have the potential of taking precedence over the other princes.

Stepping foot on English soil for the first time, the young Emma is already loathed - by her mistrustful husband, his sons and many of the courtiers who dislike her Danish heritage through her mother's side.

When she departed from Normandy, Emma was given this advice by her mother, "Bear in mind that you go to your lord not as a woman, but as a queen. In the same way, he comes to you not as a man, but as a king. He will not be father to you, nor lover, nor even friend. Do not expect it. All you can expect from his hands is what any of his subjects can expect, and that is justice and mercy. You, as queen, though, must demand one thing more. You must demand his respect. Never forget that for a moment, and never do anything that might cause you to forfeit it." She also tells her, "Your first and most important task...is to bear a son."

Emma is young, but she's strong and understands her duty. She never forgets her mother's advice, even though she will test it and heartbreaking circumstances will delay the fulfillment of her "most important task". Though mistreated, she is every bit a Queen holding her head up high and fighting for her place in and the respect of the English court. Alone and unloved, she slowly earns the affections of some of Ӕthelred's children, including a son who is of a same age as herself. As she finds herself drawing closer to the son, she struggles with her heart vs. her loyalty to her position and what she knows is right. When given the chance to make a bid for the crown with the rebellious son she has grown to love, she makes a choice that will impact England's future and show what she is really made of. Does Emma choose what's best for England or what's best for herself? I won't spoil it for those of you who aren't familiar with the history of the times and the real-life outcome.

There is so much in this novel that is heartbreaking but also inspiring. Patricia Bracewell does a great job at making history come alive and making you understand why Emma made the choices she did. She immerses you in this particular period of time with all its difficulties and ugly choices. Emma is not a perfect woman, but she is likable despite her flaws. You see her struggling and growing throughout the novel. She becomes hardened and yet there is something that brings out a fierce softness in her at the end.

The other characters were believable and well-drawn. Ӕthelred is a tortured man who is barely keeping his head above water as he tries to balance the weight of a kingdom full of heavily taxed and dissatisfied nobles and his own personal ghosts that haunt him from his childhood. You can see smaller glimmers where in the moment he is tempted to be tender with Emma and yet he is unbearably cruel to her. He sometimes gives her a grudging respect and at the same time bears he no love and hurls contempt at her as if he must instantly dismiss any positive feelings he could engender toward her.

There is also Elgiva who's a strong-willed woman who is Emma's rival for the King's bed. She is constantly conniving her way up the power chain, ruthlessly drawing up plans and even casting her eye at the King's sons. If she can't get what she wants one way, she'll get it some other way. She's reined in by her father from time to time but has her nasty little way even to the point of employing deadly means. Aided by the pagan woman who was her nurse, she is utterly shameless. While her sections of the story are the most explicit, the book is thankfully not a tawdry bodice ripper. Do be aware though (for those sensitive to this) that there is a rape scene, adultery and some descriptive though short "adult" scenes. There is also a scene of fortune-telling/prophecy which may be off-putting to some but certainly something that probably occurred during that time period where there was still a fringe of pagans in the land.

Another interesting character is Cnut of the Danes. Emma meets him during a raid and that moment is dripping with foreshadowing (the end result is not yet explored in this first novel). Even from the tiny bit of time spent on him, Cnut exudes a fairness and gentleness quite unexpected from a the son of a "pillaging" Viking.

One thing I really appreciated throughout the Shadow on the Crown are the little snippets from the Saxon Chronicle (the real deal) that headed particular chapters and preceded the fictional events based on real history. Patricia Bracewell also had a fairly lengthy note at the end of the book that described what parts of the book were based on real history and what she used to aid her in her research. She lets you know what was conjecture and where her imagination was employed and why. I really love how she goes into detail about her book, which is rare in many historical fiction novels that usually only employ a brief note about half a page long by the author. The end note in the Shadow on the Crown is 6 pages! You can see the amount of care and research Patricia employed in creating her characters and the situations they were thrown into.

Shadow on the Crown has plenty of twists and turns to keep you up reading. Towards the end of the book there is a surprise that throws a wrench in everyone's lives and sets you up for the next book in the trilogy. You can see how the events are setting the stage for the eventual Norman invasion in 1066. I'm really looking forward to it and will make sure I get it when it's available for pre-order! Patricia Bracewell's debut novel is a great start for this new author and I'm certainly a new fan! I think anyone who likes some of the better known and main stream historical fiction successes like Sharon Kay Penman & Philippa Gregory will probably appreciate her work.

*I recieved a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion.

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