Thursday, February 7, 2013

Review: SHADOW ON THE CROWN by Patricia Bracewell

I read an advanced copy of Patricia Bracewell's SHADOW ON THE CROWN (Viking) several months ago and loved it so much I included it in my Best Reads of 2012. I'm happy to say I appreciated it even more upon second reading! Here is my review.

Women, even queens, figure little in the annals of the past, and often it takes a novelist to rescue them from the shadows. Emma of Normandy may have commissioned a book about her life in 1040, but that account ignores her fifteen-year marriage to Athelred II, the king who brought her to England's shores. In SHADOW ON THE CROWN, the first volume of a proposed trilogy about Emma, Patricia Bracewell rectifies this omission with consummate skill, imagining Emma's first marriage with a verve and flair that assure the queen a lasting escape from obscurity.

In AD 1002, Athelred takes foreign-born Emma to wife in order to forge an alliance with her brother Richard, duke of Normandy, against the Danish Vikings, whose raids pose a perpetual threat to England's prosperity. In a moment of pique against his council, Athelred accepts Richard's stipulation that Emma be crowned queen and not simply consort, thereby giving any son of hers precedence over the seven sons of his uncrowned first wife. Emma quickly learns that she will secure her position only by producing a son, a task that proves increasingly difficult once the king, regretting his hasty decision, shuns her bed for that of her English rival. 

Far from home with few retainers, Emma finds herself mistrusted by the English nobles, resented by Athelred's first family, taunted by the woman who hopes to unseat her, and spurned by the king who fears granting her any further power over him. Strengthened by her mother's admonition to show no fear, Emma weathers these struggles with admirable fortitude and grace. Yet Emma's mother never taught her how to steel her heart against love, and the unbidden passion that arises between Emma and a member of the King's household threatens to destroy everything she has struggled to build. When the Danes attack England through the treachery of the King's enemies, Emma becomes both target and scapegoat and must scrabble to retain her throne and her heart.

Bracewell constructs her story around the sequence of events recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, filling in the gaps with vividly imagined, historically plausible conjecture. The story unfolds from the viewpoints of four well-developed, psychologically convincing characters: weary King Athelred, mistrustful of all, haunted to the brink of madness by the specter of his murdered half-brother; Emma, courageous and compassionate, navigating the dangers of a foreign court armed with nothing but her own inner strength; impetuous Athelstan, Athelred's eldest son, who yearns for his father's approval even as he seeks to distance himself from his disastrous policies; and Elgiva, vain and self-centered, ever scheming to snare a king and escape the abusive domination of her father and brother. The point-of-view shifts fluidly yet cleanly between these four characters, often several times within a single chapter, providing a kaleidoscopic and thoroughly engaging view of events and emphasizing the interconnectedness of personal and political aims. 

Enabled by her meticulous research, Bracewell recreates the stark beauty and pervasive brutality of the Anglo-Saxon world. She respects the realities of the era, not the sensibilities of the modern reader. Emma's England is a pagan place, where official Christianity has yet to discredit sway of seers and ease the grip of prophecy. It is a savage place, where kings slay innocents to protect their interests and invaders pillage and rape and kill without qualm. It is a masculine place, where men exploit women for their beauty or their wombs and trade them like pawns on the chessboard of dynasties. Yet it is also a place where love and loyalty and honor flourish, a place where, despite all the obstacles arrayed against her, a determined woman like Emma can use her gifts of mind and body and spirit to carve a name for herself and a future for her children. It was, in sum, a fascinating world I was loathe to quit and to which I look forward to returning. Bracewell's enthusiasm for Emma and her world shines through every beautifully wrought sentence of this masterful debut.

A few weeks ago, Patricia answered questions about her research and journey to publication in this insightful interview. You can learn more about the author at her website; be sure to check out her blog. You can find SHADOW ON THE CROWN at major booksellers and independent bookstores, or order online from your preferred vendor.


elena maria vidal said...

Great review! I would love to read it!

Julianne Douglas said...

Thanks, Elena Maria! I think you would like it a lot.

Darlene said...

I loved this book as well. I've read one other book on Emma and enjoyed it as well. She's an intriguing character and I can't wait for the next book in this trilogy!

Julianne Douglas said...

I feel the same way! I hope we don't have to wait too long. :)

Carole said...

Julianne, thanks for linking this one in to Books You Loved. I'm adding this to my TBR pile. Have a great week.

Julianne Douglas said...

Thanks for the invitation, Carole! A good week to you, too!

Elizabeth said...

Very nice review.

This sounds soooooooooo good...thanks.

Stopping by from Carole's Books You Loved February Edition I am in that list as #13.

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Julianne Douglas said...

Thanks, Elizabeth! I will check out your review.