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?