Shadow on the Crown by Patricia Bracewell
Expected Publication: February 7th, 2013 by Viking Adult
Cover photo and synopsis provided by the publisher.
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A rich tale of power and forbidden love revolving around a young medieval queen
In 1002, sixteen-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 cathedral door. Thrust into an unfamiliar and treacherous court, with a husband who sees her as a nuisance and a rival who will stop at nothing to steal her crown, the only way for Emma to secure her status as queen is to give birth to a son.
Clever and independent, Emma is determined to make the best of her difficult situation. She wins a few friends at court and is soon adored by her subjects for her generosity. 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.
As I sit down to write this review, I find myself conflicted. Part of this book was very interesting to me and I enjoyed it. But there were things that I just didn’t like and couldn’t look past which affected my overall enjoyment of the book. I can’t call myself an expert on historical fiction but I have read my fair share and enjoyed quite a good number of them. I am not entirely sure this is one of them.
Let me begin with Emma. Emma starts this story at the age of 15. She is sent by her brother (Richard, Duke of Normandy) to marry the much older King of England, Athelred (he’s 35 by the way). Now, I recognize that this was normal behavior for the time period. Girls were commonly married around 13-15 years old and were considered old maids by the time they reached 20. Historically, there was a good reason for this. The average life expectancy for that time was around 23-25. So by 20 you really were approaching the end of your days! But this is why it threw me off to have a 35 year old king who keeps being described as “so young” and “having a lot of years left in front of him”. Really? By normal standards for the time period he’s positively mummified. But let’s call that creative license and move on, alright? On her own, Emma started off as a great main character. She recognizes that typically women in her position are little about the station of cattle. But she is determined to go into the role of queen and be shown respect for her title at the very least. I appreciated that spunk and determination to make the best of her lot in life, no matter what that might be. But I soon wearied of her. She couldn’t decide if she wanted to be strong and demand respect or just do as she’s told. It seemed to depend on the company. If she was around other women then her backbone appeared, in the presence of men other than her husband a backbone appeared, with her husband and his sons the backbone turned to jelly. Well, most of the time at least, she spoke up for herself against her husband on more than one occasion too. So there was not much consistency with her character. She also had a tendency to do a lot of really stupid things in her quest to be respected. Like deciding that she is going to go on a boat trip, in the middle of winter, in terrible weather, when she is seconds away from giving birth. Nice job on that one Emma!
The only other main female character we meet is Elgiva. I kept getting the feeling that I was supposed to feel compassion for her, but I didn’t. She was a selfish, spoiled, evil, stupid little girl and one who brought nothing of any value to the plot. She was supposed to be this grand rival of Emma’s and her biggest foe. I found her to be more like a gnat buzzing around Emma’s ear…annoying for sure, but rarely threatening. She only has one truly evil action in this book and no one ever even knew it was her (or that it was anything other than an accident actually) so it was rather pointless.
The plot has a lot going on but not much of it actually amounted to anything. You have a King who is being confronted with an invasion by the Danes and has no idea what to do about it, and so he decides to do nothing or do something rash. Really? This guy got to become king? He was an idiot through and through. Athelstan started to serve a purpose in the book by being Athelred’s eldest son and the supposed heir to the throne even if he hadn’t been officially named heir yet. He tries to solve the invading Danes issue and gets nowhere. Emma’s plot was to find herself a place of power and title in the King’s court. Yet she also does a lot of things that directly contradict that supposed goal. Then we get prophecies about several characters that keep being mentioned but are not followed up on. There are lots and lots of interesting pieces of plot but it never comes together into a cohesive story.
But what really made this a two star book was what the author chose to imaginatively overlook with historical accuracy and what she did not. Anyone who reads historical fiction must accept that women are largely treated like objects for the sole use and purpose of men. They are bought and sold like pawns. Abuse and rape were common, this is all true! But I thought there was more women beating and women getting raped than there was plot. It was constant. It was hard to go a handful of pages without a woman being backhanded or sexually assaulted. Yes, it’s historically accurate, but after a copious amount of things that were conveniently made historically inaccurate for the sake of the story this is the one you decide to follow to the letter? Really? I found it to be a convenient plot device to engender dislike in characters we weren’t supposed to like without developing their character enough to show us why they’re bad. Just have them rape someone, then it’s all clear! No, just no! If there’s going to be that much blatant and horrendous abuse of women it needs to serve a purpose to the plot other than saying “see, he’s bad!”
There are a lot of things that I really liked about this book and a lot of things I didn’t. Ultimately it was the rampant degradation of women and the disjointed plot that just me not care much about any of it anymore. I didn’t care if we had a satisfying ending (we didn’t by the way), I just wanted to be finished. And that disappoints me, I had high hopes for this.
Special thanks to Viking Adult for providing me an ARC copy of this book in exchange for an honest review!