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?

The Anglo-Saxons in Britain: Part 2

Pre-1066 illustration of Anglo-Saxon warriors on horseback. By Anon. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When last we left the Saxons, they were defending the British against the Picts and Scots under a peace treaty that paid them in money, food and land for their services. All was well for a time, but then the Saxons began to think bigger.

It is clear that by the mid-fifth century, the Saxons were growing restless with their narrow strip of land and seeking greater inroads into the country. They brought more and more of their Germanic fellows to Britain and demanded increasing amounts of payment. Eventually, they broke their treaty and began sacking British towns. According to Gildas, the leaders of the Saxons were called Hengest and Hosa and they ruled Kent. Nennius tells us that Vortigern married Hengest’s daughter in an effort to secure peace and Bede gives us the story of the hidden daggers in the Saxons’ boots at the council where they betrayed Vortigern. But that is the stuff of mythology and folk legend, not verifiable history.

On and on the two sides fought, sometimes winning, sometimes losing, neither really gaining ground. According to Phillips and Keatman, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (which Snyder discredits as unreliable during this time period) “lists no battles between 465 and 473. This must have been a period of consolidation on both sides when defenses were prepared and personnel organized” (73). In 473 (again, according to the Chronicle), the Saxons won a great victory, but then shortly thereafter, the Britons held them at bay.

This is the time period of Arthur’s 12 great battles (as given to us by Nennius), if you believe that Arthur existed. If not, the closest historical leader scholars can point to is Ambrosius Aurelianus. Synder credits him with challenging the Saxons in multiple locations until the battle of Mount Badon (somewhere between 485-510). After that defeat there was a period of peace. As Phillips and Keatman write, “In the half century that followed Badon, until the time of Gildas’ writing, Britain enjoyed a period free from external attack. Indeed, there is archeological evidence of a reverse Anglo-Saxon migration; considerable numbers returned to the continent of Europe, uncertain, no doubt, of their precarious foothold in Britain” (77). Especially since Phillips and Keatman’s archeological evidence is weak (pottery shards in Germany that supposedly show they were settlers direct from Britain – but they don’t talk about how or why the shards lead us to this conclusion), I doubt the validity of the reverse migration. I have a feeling that while some may have returned home, the Saxons were, in general, still in Britain licking their wounds and biding their time to rebuild the forces they lost at Badon.

But their mindset of defeat seems to have ended in the late sixth century. By 550, the Saxons had defeated the British at Salisbury, and by 577, they had cut off the British in the southwest by taking the towns of Bath, Cirencester and Gloucester. By 614, they controlled Devon and by 682, had the whole of the southwest peninsula under their control, save Cornwall. To the north and west, the Angles rose to power, and by the eighth century, they had overtaken most of the rest of the country. By 927, the Saxon king Athelstan, successor to Alfred the Great, united the country into a single kingdom first called Angelcynn, then Englaland and today, England (Phillips and Keatman 78). The remainder of the Britons settled in Wales, Cornwall and Brittany, eventually to carry on only in Wales – the beginning of the divide between England and Wales that exists still today.



The Britons by Christopher A. Snyder
The Anglo-Saxons by James Campbell (ed.)
King Arthur: The True Story by Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman

What about you? What have you heard about the Anglo-Saxon invasions? Does it agree with or contradict what’s written here? (It’s a complex topic.) What sources do you recommend?

The Anglo-Saxons in Britain: Part 1

A.D. 500-1000, Anglo-Saxons. By by Albert Kretschmer, painters and costumer to the Royal Court Theatre, Berin, and Dr. Carl Rohrbach. (Costumes of All Nations (1882)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

If you’re anything like me, you have hazy memories of learning about the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain in high school. You may even recall a map with arrows pointing from the continental Europe to the Eastern coast of Britain, indicating where the Angles, Saxons and Jutes landed. That was about all I remembered before I started researching for these books, and although this isn’t my area of focus, I thought I’d share a little of what I’ve learned.

The traditional view of how the Anglo-Saxons (my catch-all term for the Angles, Saxons and Jutes – I have no desire to try to explain the difference) came to Britain is that massive waves of them invaded the isle in bloody battle (a view popularized by Bede, Gildas and Nennius). In this view, their first major attack on Britain was either 408 or 41o, during the reign of Constantine when he was busy in Brittany and Rome was rapidly pulling its support from Britain. It was a sound defeat for the Britons that only led to more trouble as the years went by.

Now this thought is being replaced by one that I, personally, think is more realistic. While it lacks the drama of earlier theories, the idea that the Saxons slowly settled over time is consistent with many other “invasions” throughout history (look at the English who colonized America or the Irish who inhabited Dalriada in what is today Scotland – those certainly weren’t all at once).

According to Snyder, the new way of thinking goes like this: in the late fourth century, the Anglo-Saxons  left their homeland in search of more prosperous lands (possibly due to changing weather conditions, rising sea levels or famine in Germanic areas). They must have come a few families or small tribal groups at a time because there is little evidence for major Saxon settlements until around 440. It is likely that in between this time, the Saxons were settling where they could, bringing their women and children over from Germany and Denmark or intermarrying with the Britons on the eastern coast, and slowly increasing their population in this new land.

In the 430s, a group of Britons sent an appeal for help against their other enemies, the Picts and the Scots, to the Roman general Aetius in Gaul, but he didn’t respond. The Britons held a council to try to decide what to do, led by a “proud tyrant,” whom mythology tells us is Vortigern (whose name/title means “proud tyrant”). Vortigern, or whoever led the council, decided to hire the Saxons as mercenaries to defend against the “peoples of the north” (Gildas, quoted in Snyder 83). The Saxons sent word to their homeland, and warships of warriors came to the isle under a peace treaty that ensured the Saxons were protected, paid and fed for their services, which they performed well.

But that only lasted so long. Next week, we’ll look at what went wrong and how the Saxons eventually took power from the Britons, forming the country we know today as England.



The Britons by Christopher A. Snyder
The Anglo-Saxons by James Campbell (ed.)
King Arthur: The True Story by Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman

What about you? What have you heard about the Anglo-Saxon invasions? Does it agree with or contradict what’s written here? (It’s a complex topic.) What sources do you recommend?