Shadow on the Crown, declares author Patricia Bracewell (was there ever a more appropriate name for an English history novelist?), is the first of a trilogy encompassing the royal life of Emma of Normandy. Emma assumed her throne at the beginning of the last millennium, and Shadow follows her from her days as a young woman in Normandy through her coronation and the birth of her first son. And a rough time she had of it.
King Aethelred (called in history, though not by Bracewell, “The Unready,” one of my favorite English-History sobriquets) resents the fact that Emma’s brother, Richard, has muscled him into making Emma his queen instead of his consort in return for support against the ravaging Danes. Aethelred already has numerous sons, so has no need of a wife whose progeny might claim precedence over them, since their mother was never blessed with the “Q” title. The king also suffers MacBeth-like guilt and hallucinations because it was the murder of his younger brother, Edmund, that put him on the throne. He didn’t do the killing, but he was a witness and thinks he could have done more to prevent it. As a result of all these threatening circumstances, he’s afraid of everyone: The Danes, his ambitious sons, the ghost of Edmund, Emma’s brother, Richard, the Normans Emma brings to court, and every noble in the land. His fear makes him cruel, erratic, and dangerous to everyone, but most particularly to Emma. What’s a queen to do? We spend delightful hours turning the pages of Shadow on the Crown as Emma tries to answer that very question.
Emma’s a spirited sort, who determines from the beginning that come what may, she will demand respect, even–especially–from her tyrannical spouse. Her attitude gets her into trouble from time to time, but mostly the approach serves her better than submission would have. She has the leverage of a dowry rich in both money and English lands. And she makes herself popular with the commoners, even though she’s viewed with suspicion as an usurping foreigner by many at court. Moreover, she keeps Aethelred a little off balance. He can’t isolate her the way he’d planned, hadn’t counted on her language skills, had thought she wouldn’t speak or understand English, would be content to stay in her quarters and suffer his sexual ministrations (i.e., rapes) whenever he deigned to confer them.
The stage is set, then, for a classic royal intrigue, and we get one, replete with court intrigue, wars and rumors of wars, intrafamilial savagery. But Bracewell gives us a dimension or two beyond convention. In clear and compelling prose, she brings us to know and feel the tides of a tender heart and the workings of a shrewd mind as Emma negotiates the depths and shoals of a sea always, it seems, in the midst of storm. We come to know her well and cheer for her. Yet, she is no unflawed romantic heroine. Her miscalculations are legion, and the reader agonizes with her as she tries to work her way out of her mistakes, growing tougher and smarter in the process. We come to know as well, the thoughts and feelings of those who hate and resent her, as well as of those who harbor forbidden love for her, all of which add wonderful texture to the action.
And, to color and texture to it all, Bracewell has a wonderful way with names. Given variations in historic spellings and translations, she often has choices in these matters, and how much better than to name, for example, an invading Dane villain, not just Sweyn, but Swein Forkbeard? Or to give the rather pedestrian “York,” the exotic/foreign Danish name of “Jorvich.”
Taken as a whole, Shadow On The Crown, is a crowning piece of historical narrative and a triumph of a novel. You’ll not find a better read in either category. Pick it up. I guarantee you won’t easily put it down.