Author: Patricia Bracewell
Genre: historical fiction
Series: Untitled #1
Pages: 436 (ARC edition)
Published: expected February 7 2013
Source: publishers via edelweiss
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.
Based on real events recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Shadow on the Crown introduces readers to a fascinating, overlooked period of history and an unforgettable heroine whose quest to find her place in the world will resonate with modern readers.
More and more I find I am drawn to historical fiction novels that are based on real events, as is the case with Bracewell's first novel. Shadows on the Crown is set during a largely ignored period; an era of special violence and turbulence in England. The struggles of the all characters, mainly protagonist and one of the narrators, Emma of Normandy, are rooted in historical fact. While the author is admittedly not afraid to play fast and loose with some facts, names, dates, Emma's story is fascinating and also based on a biography this strong Queen herself commissioned late in 1017. Filled with action, forbidden love, Swedish vikings and a mad king, Shadows on the Crown is a sure fit for historical fiction fans looking for an unconventional time and strong, determined female characters.
Covering only three years (1002 - 1005 AD) of the long life of this important, if largely forgotten by modern-day authors, Queen of England, this is a fast-paced, quick read despite the dauting 400+ page length. The third person POV can create a bit of distance from the various narrators - Emma, her husband Aethelred (often called, incorrectly, the 'Unready'), Aethelred's son Aethelstan, and minor antagonist Elgvia (Aelgifu) of Northhampton - but each character coalesces into an easily identifiable voice and tone early on. This is the first of a forthcoming, currently unnamed series, and the brisk pace and POV jumps do prevent the readers from a solid grasp on the players for a fair bit of the novel. However, it is early days yet, both in Emma's vastly interesting life and in this author's trilogy, so I do think some improvement will come in that aspect. It's also worth noting that there are so many Ae- names that the extensive character list at the very beginning of the book comes quite in handy for the first 200 pages.
There's a lot of conflict at the heart of the novel, and in Emma's precarious existence in the English court. Conflict between Aethelred and his new Norman wife, some of which, quite honestly, was hard for me to read; conflict between England and the Swedish King Swein Forkbeard; and more conflict between Aethelred's first family and his new one over the inheritance. Primarily little more than a hostage to the good behavior of her brother the Duke of Normandy, Emma strives for security, safety and love in a den of suspicious vipers. The antagonists of the novel are multiple and vary in size and threat - from the vixen from the North with her eyes on the King of England and Emma's place, to the King himself, and last but not least, Swein Forkbeard's Viking incursions, there's plenty of action and deceit to go around.
I honestly could have done without the forbidden, star-crossed lovers route that engages two of the characters. For the most part, it bored me while frustrating me; it is wholly unnecessary. Another subplot created for suspense and tension by the author, it didn't ring as true as the rest of the novel, nor fit with the motivations of either character involved. I don't want to spoil anything for future readers, but I felt both were better off without a romantic entanglement of that sort. For me, caught up in fare more interesting struggles of the characters, it overall added nothing of worth to the novel. That conflict in addition to the distance nature of the narration are the only things that kept this from being a higher-rated novel.
I liked this. It was evenly good throughout, though I wish I had more of a grasp on the characters themselves. However, this is the first in a trilogy so they, and the author, will have ample time and pages to grow. The author's note is a captivating read for many reasons, I urge readers not to skip it; it definitely adds more color to an already entertaining novel. Shadows on the Crown is a strong attempt for Bracewell to fill in the missing years from Emma's commissioned biography, and happily, she does so easily and believably. The best historical fiction novels are the ones that make you intensely curious about the time, places, and people portrayed and this is such a one.
A liberal view of history, a strong sense of time and character, and a brisk pace all add up to make Patricia Bracewell's first novel an encouraging one. I eagerly await the forthcoming sequels, and will have to sate my new interest in thsi time and people with