Book reviews, musings and waffle from a British lit addict

Review: ‘Shadow on the Crown’ by Patricia Bracewell

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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 Æthelred 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.

Review

When it comes to historical fiction, I tend to gravitate to a few time periods: the Tudors and the First and Second World Wars.  It isn’t all that I read but probably 8 or 9 out of every 10 historical fiction books that I read are set during one of those times.  Branching out a little and going back to the very early eleventh century gave me those moments where I had to bumble off to the internet to check what actually happened or get some background on a battle or relationship, the moments that I read historical fiction for in the first place.  I think the reason that I’m drawn so much to Tudor history or modern history is because I know a little more about the periods (I did a Tudor History A-level and Boyfriend and I seem to holiday near war memorials pretty frequently) and I always forget how much I feel as though I’m learning by ‘experiencing’ other periods.

Bracewell does a good job of making Emma of Normandy’s story one that is interesting to read about.  There’s a great balance between the factual background to the political situation at the time and the diplomacy and wrangling leading up to Emma’s marriage to Æthelred and beyond and the fictional elaboration on Emma’s story.  A strong woman in a time where women were revered for delicacy and humility, she quickly finds herself struggling to find happiness in a country that she doesn’t know among people that either hate her or pretend to hate her to advance careers or pursue ambitions.  If I was being super picky, I’d say that I would have liked a little more of the political bits where Emma came across as stronger and a little less of the romantic angst and self-pitying but that’s really just my preference generally.

Much though I loved branching out and getting to hang out with some Vikings, however, there were a couple of things about Shadow on the Crown that made reading it a bit of a flawed experience.  The book is written by an American author but is set in England.  I know that isn’t an infrequent occurrence and is probably the case more often than I realise but I do think that if you’re going to publish a novel in British English, you have to be very familiar with the differences between it and American English.  There were a couple of times where there was a turn of phrase, word or style of speaking that didn’t quite fit.  We don’t, for example, use the term ‘Fall’ for a season; we have ‘Autumn’.  Probably not noticeable if you’re an American reader but it seemed a bit…sloppy to me.

The story is also a little repetitive.  I know that with historical fiction that is grounded in actual history you don’t always have a choice about the decisions that your ‘characters’ make or the situations they find themselves in.  You do have a choice about what you focus on, though, and there were times when I was reading yet another illustration of King Æthelred s brutality or another and couldn’t help but get a bit restless.  Emma seemed to think round in circles and I wanted to shake her a bit even while I sympathised with her.  There is only so many times that you need to beat me over the head with the “rape within marriage was common and terrible” message, particularly if the scenes are going to be so similar. Perhaps the repetition was part of the point but, if so, the technique felt over-used.

For all of my whining, I really did like Emma as a character and I was totally behind her and really did want her to find some happiness in England.  Anywhere, actually.  Alas, medieval England was pretty brutal and it’s tough to find peace and tranquillity when Vikings come a-marauding.  I obviously enjoyed it despite having some gripes because I genuinely did feel as though I cared (to my detriment mostly).  History can be tough.

Overall:  If you’re looking for something a little different in the adult historical fiction market, Shadow of the Crown has plenty to recommend it.  The story is solid and the time and setting were an interesting break from my usual sixteenth century/twentieth century fodder.  Not perfect but fair.

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Date finished:  22 April 2013
Format:  eBook
Source:  Received from the publisher via NetGalley – thank you, Viking Adult!
Genre:  Historical fiction
Pictured Edition Published: by Viking Adult in February 2013