Monday, February 22, 2021

Review: THE STEEL BENEATH THE SILK by Patricia Bracewell

The wait was definitely worth it.

THE STEEL BENEATH THE SILK (Bellastoria Press, March 2) caps off Patricia Bracewell's trilogy on eleventh-century Emma of Normandy, Queen of England, with all the drama, emotion, and skill that fans of the series have come to expect. With consummate ease, Bracewell plunges her readers back into a perilous, war-torn England ravaged by marauding Danish raiders from without and crumbling from treachery within. As King Swein of Denmark and his ambitious son Cnut penetrate ever farther into England, suborning English lords and capturing city after city, Emma's raddled husband, King Æthelred, alienates allies and squanders the loyalty of his people. Calling upon her wits, her faith, and the counsel of a trusted few, Emma must discern rumor from fact, friend from foe, solid hope from fleeting fancy as she strives to hold the besieged country together and make her dream of a united, peaceful England an enduring reality.

The story moves at a rapid and entertaining clip, thanks to Bracewell's strong command of the historical material and her intimate familiarity with her characters. Readers, even ones new to the series, will never lose their bearings. Customized maps of England and London detail the physical setting; chapter headings provide locations and dates to set the scene. The author takes care, especially in the opening chapters, to weave in accounts of past events that bear on the present action, keeping these flashbacks fresh by recounting them from a new perspective or shading them with recent insight. Both to control the pacing and to introduce important historical events tangential to Emma's narrative arc, Bracewell inserts snippets from the contemporary Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. This historical scaffolding plays an additional role: the contrast between these brief, factual passages and Bracewell's emotionally rich, internalized narration demonstrates the power of historical fiction to transform the dry bones of history into a compelling reflection on the human spirit, wholly relevant to modern readers.

Readers of the previous installments will recognize and welcome the reappearance of favorite characters who continue to evolve. Although the main story arc focuses on Emma and her efforts to foster a united England, the journeys of these other characters deservedly vie for attention. The narrative point-of-view shifts when circumstance requires; Bracewell hands these shifts of perspective with finesse and a keen sense of what another viewpoint can contribute to a given situation. Æthelred, Athelstan, Edmund, Elgiva, and Cnut all take turns as viewpoint characters, experiencing events beyond Emma's purview and fueling the conflicts and passions that motivate the central action.

The strongest aspect of THE STEEL BENEATH THE SILK is precisely the psychological richness of its characters. Even if the reader knows the historical trajectory of Emma's life, this imagined, emotionally nuanced account of her struggle to reconcile her personal desires with the strategic needs of her kingdom will nonetheless appeal and intrigue. As Bracewell admits in her Author Note, although the events that she portrays are factual, "Emma's role in them is my own invention. Although we know that she was there and must have played some part in all that occurred, we simply cannot be certain about what that was." Having thought long and hard about Emma's participation in these critical events in England's history, Bracewell fashions a main character with whom the reader can identify as well as admire. The trilogy as a whole presents Emma as a poignantly complex, achingly real woman whose actions not only define her individuality, but serve as the point of departure for broader contemplation of the very notion of queenship. 

"Long live the queen"--Bracewell closes her monumental endeavor with this resounding and devoted cheer. It is precisely thanks to Bracewell's meticulous research, keen insight into human nature, and first-rate narrative skills that Emma of Normandy, Queen of England, will live long and vividly in the minds and hearts of the trilogy's readers. THE STEEL BENEATH THE SILK, along with its companion volumes, merits a prominent place in the canon of exemplary historical fiction.

Patricia Bracewell's love of reading led to college degrees in Literature, a career as a high school English teacher, and an  unquenchable desire to write. Shadow on the Crown, the first book in her trilogy about the 11th century queen Emma of Normandy, was published in 2013 in the U.S. and England, and has been translated into Italian, German, Portuguese and Russian. Her second novel, The Price of Blood, published in 2015, continues the gripping tale of a queen whose marriage to an English king set in motion a series of events that would culminate in the Norman Conquest of 1066. In 2014 Patricia was honored to serve as Writer-in-Residence at Gladstone's Library in Wales where she conducted research for The Steel Beneath the Silk, the third book in her trilogy about Queen Emma. Patricia and her husband live in Oakland, California. Visit her at her website.

THE STEEL BENEATH THE SILK can be purchased from AmazonBarnes and Noble, and Indiebound.

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