Book Review: Shadow on the Crown by Patricia Bracewell

shadowWe’re less than half a month in to 2014 and I’ve already found what might just be my favorite book of the year. Shadow on the Crown by Patricia Bracewell was published in 2013 and highly lauded by the Historical Novel Society. Now I know why.

The book, the first of a trilogy, tells the story of a little-known historical queen called Emma of Normandy in the years before William the Conqueror did his thing in 1066. The Saxons are at the height of their power in Britain, but are heavily threatened by the Danes, who raid their coasts yearly. Emma’s Norman noble family is an ally of both, and seeks to raise their own prestige by balancing the favor of both kings. In an effort to broker peace, young Emma is married the British king, Aethelred, who is a haunted, brutal man. Once at court, Emma finds that her role as queen is not at all what she expected and she must use all the wits God gave her to survive in a world that is a real life game of thrones.

Shadow on the Crown sucked me in from the first pages. To me, this book embodies everything historical fiction should be. Bracewell is particularly adept at world building. Despite my Arthurian research, the Saxons are not a people I’m intimately familiar with, but after reading this book, I feel like I have spent time in their bleak, brutal world and have come away with a greater understanding of what life in those times was like. Part of what I think makes this possible is that Bracewell based her story heavily in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle and uses actual Saxon words throughout the book (oh, that such a thing were possible for Arthurian legend!), which lends a strong air of authenticity to the story.

While the book is far from doom and gloom, she doesn’t shy away from the realities of the time: abusive men, dismissive attitudes toward women, brutal war and savage tactics, including rape. But beyond that, Bracewell has done a superior job of getting into the mindset of the Anglo-Saxon people, a reality where signs and portents were everywhere, ones fate (wyrd) was pre-ordained and death and betrayal lurked around every corner.

In addition, Bracewell’s characters are well crafted. Four tell the story, each with their own point of view. Emma is incredibly strong for her time period, but it is not at all anachronistic. This is a strength that comes not from taking up arms, but from being unwilling to surrender to less than perfect circumstances, using all her wits to stay one step ahead of those who would harm her, and when necessary, being as manipulative as the men to gain what she wants. The other female lead, Elgiva, is similarly strong, although her intentions are much darker than Emma’s. While Aethelred is violent and possibly insane, it isn’t out of keeping with a man who has known treachery since childhood and suffered great loss in his life. His foil is his eldest son, Aethelstan, who is much more noble and likable, showing that the Saxons were not just men drunk on blood and gore, but living, breathing human beings who cared for one another as well.

Bracewell’s writing style is one that should be studied by every writer. She uses every word intentionally, and when taken together, they are almost poetic. Her ability to evoke a time nearly a millennium in the past is masterful, as her descriptions put you right in the center of the action in a world so foreign to our own. Her dialogue is witty and well crafted, with every character having a distinct voice. In particular, Shadow on the Crown is one of the best examples of how multiple points of view should be handled, as each change in perspective blends seamlessly with the one before and after, avoiding the “head hopping” and jarring transitions that can sometimes occur in this style.

This book has taught me so much as a writer, which is the highest praise I can possible give a novel. It makes me want to go back to my manuscripts and see how I can improve them. I will certainly be studying her use of multiple points of view, as I attempt that in my own novels in the future.

I cannot wait until the next book comes out. Shadow on the Crown proves that a debut novel can – and should – be a masterpiece. Five stars.

Have you read this book? Did you like it? Why or why not? After reading this review, are you interested in reading it?

Q is for Queens in the Celtic World

I love this image of Boudicca because I think she looks like Rachelle Lefevre.

“I am woman, hear me roar” may have been spoken out loud for the first time in the 1970s, but it may as well have been the mantra of Celtic women. Compared to their contemporaries in the Roman Empire, Greece and just about every other civilization, Celtic women had amazing rights and freedoms. I’ll go into more detail in the future, but suffice for now that they could own land, marry and divorce at will and were well represented under the law.

But yet, scholars disagree on whether or not Celtic Queens were the exception or the norm. Recent thought (in the books I’ve read) seems to show a disfavor for the idea of many historical queens, dismissing the ideal of the now mythologized matrilineal society/succession as unlikely, if not impossible. Personally, I think more women ruled than those we have records for. Do I have evidence for this? Absolutely not. But the Celts weren’t big on writing things down, so who is to say there weren’t more that are lost in history? I find it hard to believe that a society that was so supportive of women didn’t also have more women rulers. Since history is written by the victors (in this case, men), we’re lucky to know about the few we do.

But I digress. Here are two Celtic women from history who fought for and against the Romans, doing what they thought was best for their people.

  1. Cartimandua – Cartimandua was Queen of the Brigantes, a large tribe in northern Britain (around modern Yorkshire). According to the evidence we have to date, she was the first hereditary queen to rule any part of Britain. Unlike Boudicca, who married into her Queenship, Cartimandua was born to rule and her husbands held the role of consorts. It is likely that she was already Queen and married to her first husband, Venutius, before the Romans came in 43 AD. The Romans needed her help and protection if they were to extend their rule in Britain and Cartimandua was a wise woman, so she made a treaty with Emperor Claudius. However, her pro-Roman leanings were not popular and she had to quell a series of revolts among her subjects. In 48 AD, Roman forces helped her end these revolts. Three years later, her warriors captured the leader of the resistance, Caratacus, and turned him over to the Romans, winning their continued support. Twice during 52 – 57 AD, her husband attempted to overthrow her by allying with the anti-Roman Celts, but Cartimandua’s Roman allies intervened. During this time, some sources say she divorced her husband in favor of his cup-bearer (or armor-bearer, depending on the source), Vellocatus, while others say that eventually, Cartimandua and her husband came to an accord and reigned together until 69, when she then divorced him for Vellocatus. In 69, Venutius rebelled again and was successful in ousting Cartimandua from the throne. What happened to her after that is unknown, but her legacy is that during her entire reign, she kept her lands free from Roman occupation. Fun side note: Cartimandua is even said by some to be the model for the Arthurian character of Guinevere, thanks to the love triangle she created with her husband and lover.

  2. Boudicca – Boudicca (also spelled Boadicea) was of the Icini tribe in Southeast Britain in the early first century AD. Her husband, Prasutagus, saw advantage in allying with Rome, and this decision brought them many years of peace. When Prasutagus died, the Romans discovered he had named the Emperor co-heir with his two daughters. The Romans couldn’t bear the thought of sharing power – much less with two women – so they attacked the Icini villages. Boudicca, now Queen, was publicly flogged and her two daughters raped. Enraged, she rallied the people and they revolted, destroying several large Roman cities during the years 60-61 AD, including Camulodunum, Londinium (modern London) and Verulamium. Pursuing the Romans even further, she met Gaius Suetonius Paulinus and his forces in the Battle of Waltling Street. Although the Romans were vastly outnumbered, their military discipline and precision resulted in their victory. Thousands of Celts died. No one knows for sure what happened to Boudicca. She is believed to have survived the battle and either died from illness or taken poison (possibly along with her daughters) to avoid capture, public humiliation and eventual execution by Rome.

I was going to cover some mythological Queens, too, but I think this is enough for one day.

What do you think? Did the Celts have more Queens than these two? Have you  ever heard of Boudicca or Cartimandua before this? (Cartimandua was new to me, but I find her fascinating.)