The first in a trilogy about Emma of Normandy (England’s twice crowned queen of the early 11th century and mother to Edward the Confessor), Shadow on the Crown explores Emma’s early life in England as the queen to Æthelred “the Unready”. According to the “Author’s Note”, there is very little actually known about the early years of Emma’s marriage and Bracewell constructs a story largely based on a few entries in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and imaginings of what surely must have been a complex and dynamic family situation, in addition to the tangled politics of the time.
As a young teen, Emma is married to Æthelred in an attempt to bring peace to England from the plundering Danes who have used Normandy as a launch pad for their raids. Emma’s brother Richard is Normandy’s duke and their Danish mother brings them influence with the Danes and suspicions from the English. Æthelred, considerably older than Emma with eleven children by his first wife (including six sons) is a troubled man haunted by the guilt of his older brother’s death - a death that put him on the throne. As England’s troubles continue and the Danes are given cause to resume their raids, he wonders if his country is being punished for his sins and his promise to his dead brother’s spirit will have drastic consequences that he cannot foresee or even imagine .
I have mixed feelings about this. Other than the occasional clunky sentence structure (which perhaps was meant to give a more authentic feel to the story – “Think you …” is an example – but it’s use was so inconsistent that I found it jarring), I thought it was very well written. Bracewell has a wonderful way with words and the writing style made for an easy and enjoyable read. Given the scarcity of information about her subject, she also manages to weave a fairly convincing story around the known facts and providing reasonable motivations for the actions of the major players.
But it’s that same lack of historical information that hurts the story, especially the first half. Without some meaty historical events to move the plot forward, not much really happens and I often thought that if you changed the names and a few details, the story could have happened anytime, anywhere. The second half is better as the Danes come knocking – or rather burning and pillaging – and there’s more going on.
Then there’s Emma herself. I never warmed to her at all and frankly found her dull. I didn’t dislike her but I also didn’t feel any sympathy or empathy for her – most of the time I was indifferent towards her. Æthelred is mostly an unfeeling, brutal jerk, but the battles with his personal demons humanize him a bit and I found him a much more interesting character. To her credit, Bracewell did not follow the pack when it came to point of view. Instead of first person narration by Emma (which probably would have made it boring beyond belief), the story is told from the third person point of view of Emma, Æthelred, his son Athelstan and Eligva, daughter of the powerful earl of Northumbria.
Despite the issues I had, I think Bracewell shows a lot of promise as a writer so I"ll be reading the next book in the trilogy. Hopefully, as the events in Emma's life become more interesting, her story will as well.
In case the FTC asks: copy from the publisher