Shadow on the Crown by Patricia Bracewell

Shadow on the Crown When King Æthelred II of England loses his wife Ælfgifu, he looks across the Narrow Sea to Normandy for his next bride. Duke Richard of Normandy has two unmarried sisters and it’s the younger, fifteen-year-old Emma, who is chosen. In return, Æthelred requests that Richard closes the harbours of Normandy to Swein Forkbeard and his Vikings, the enemies of the Anglo-Saxons.

From the moment Emma arrives in England in the year 1002 and learns that her new husband has not bothered to come and meet her, she knows her marriage is not going to be a happy one. Soon Emma hears of the rumours surrounding Æthelred’s claim to the throne and the older half-brother who died under suspicious circumstances and she begins to understand that she has married a troubled, paranoid man. But dealing with her husband is not the only problem she faces; she also has to cope with the hostility of her stepsons, the æthelings (heirs to the throne) Athelstan, Ecbert and Edmund. Because she has actually been crowned Queen of England, any children of Emma’s will inherit the throne ahead of the æthelings – the children of Æthelred’s previous wife, who was never crowned.

Another person unhappy with Emma’s arrival is Elgiva, daughter of the Northumbrian ealdorman Ælfhelm, who was hoping to become Queen herself. Elgiva soon becomes one of the villains of the novel, consumed with jealousy and plotting Emma’s downfall. The only bright spot in Emma’s life is her relationship with Athelstan, the eldest ætheling, whose feelings for her are changing as he gets to know her better. But with a brutal, violent husband and a woman who will do anything to steal her crown, Emma comes to realise that the only way she will be able to wield any power is to have a child of her own as quickly as possible, a son who will be the future King of England.

I loved Shadow on the Crown. The writing is beautiful and it’s hard to believe it’s Patricia Bracewell’s first novel. It also made a nice change to find an author choosing to write about a period of history that isn’t covered in historical fiction very often. Before reading this book I had only a vague knowledge of this period and I enjoyed learning more about life in the early years of the eleventh century – an era that is fascinating to read about, but definitely not one I would have wanted to live through myself! It’s difficult to comment on the accuracy of a novel when you know so little about the period concerned but the book does include an interesting author’s note explaining which parts of the story are based on fact. Bracewell has used the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as one of her sources and includes some excerpts throughout the novel, which adds to the feeling of authenticity.

Sometimes historical fiction can work well when it’s written in the first person but this one is written in the third person from several different viewpoints and I think it was the right decision. It allowed us to see events from more than one perspective – from Emma’s, Elgiva’s, Athelstan’s and Æthelred’s – and while I liked Emma from the beginning, being able to get inside the other characters’ heads meant I could understand them better. Æthelred’s feelings of guilt and terror, haunted by the death of his older half-brother, Edward; Athelstan’s inner conflicts, torn between love for Emma and his desire to be king; Elgiva’s envy of Emma and her bitterness at not becoming queen – being given some insights into all of these things helped me to see why these characters behaved the way they did.

Shadow on the Crown is the first in a trilogy of books about Emma of Normandy and I’m already looking forward to the second one. This book only covers the period between 1001 and 1005, so there is still a lot more of Emma’s story to come!

I received a copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley for review

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18 thoughts on “Shadow on the Crown by Patricia Bracewell

  1. Lisa says:

    Emma plays a part in Dorothy Dunnett’s King Hereafter – the only time I’ve met her in a work of fiction, I think! This sounds really interesting – I hope it will be available in the US.

    • Helen says:

      It’s available in the US now, I think. This is the first book I’ve ever read about Emma, but since finishing it I have started reading King Hereafter. I love it so far, but it’s going to take a long time to read as it requires so much concentration!

      • Lisa says:

        I was so surprised – and pleased! – to find this in the new books bin at the library this afternoon. I enjoyed the first few pages & am looking forward to reading more.

  2. Leander says:

    This sounds really interesting, Helen. You’re absolutely right – there’s so little on this period that it’s great to hear of writers who are taking the plunge! I’ll have to keep my eye open for this one, and it’s great to hear that the writing lives up to the imaginative choice of period. I really have to get my act together and start using NetGallery – I keep spotting interesting books that people have sourced through it…

    • Helen says:

      I’ve discovered some great books through Netgalley – the only problem is that you can be tempted into requesting books you’re not really sure about and that you know you don’t realistically have time to read!

  3. D. James Fortescue says:

    The novel sounds interesting indeed. It seems that there is plenty of story material for many cultures around the end of the first millennium, with the invasions and clashes.

    I am looking for some interesting historical fiction novels to help my own novel shaping. I shall mention this book on my blog, with a link to your page. Thanks for letting us know of this book and its planned series =)

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad I could bring this book to your attention! I’m surprised more authors haven’t decided to write about this period as it’s so underused in fiction, compared to the Tudor period, for example. Good luck with your novel.

  4. elainethomp says:

    There’s a trilogy by Valerie Anand that is more or less in this period, the first one is GILDENFORD, and starts in the 1040s with a murder/killing of the current king’s heir at Gildenford. Lots of people blame Emma for it. I liked it a lot at the time I read it, and the other two installments go through into William the Conqueror’s reign. Might be worth looking for. I haven’t like anything else Anand has written nearly as well. Some of the characterizations are still vivid in memory.

    Sounds like I should look for this one. In fact I think I’ve seen it in the library….

    Elaine T.

    • Helen says:

      Thanks, Elaine. I’m not familiar with Valerie Anand but I would definitely be interested in reading more books set in this period. I’ll have to look out for Gildenford.

  5. Charlie says:

    It sounds really good. I’m most impressed by this review, though, all those names starting with E and the ae thing, I’m guessing it must’ve taken a time to format it all!

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