Shadow on the crown by Patricia Bracewell

As sister to the Norman duke Richard, Emma gets betrothed to the English king Aethelred II. Aethelred has just lost his wife in childbed who gave him already three daughters and six sons. His marriage to Emma is a pure political one as her brother promises to help defend England against the Danes. But the allegiance comes with a prize: Emma gets a crown and the title Queen of England.

Soon Emma discovers she has few friends at court and her husband bears her no love. Aethelred is plagued by a childhood drama and mistrusts everyone, including his beautiful but Norman queen. It is clear Emma must look elsewhere for love, but at first she gets none from the king’s eldest three sons. As queen she, and any male issue she begets, becomes a rival for the throne should Aethelred die. Elgiva, the daughter of a northern lord, had herself the ambition to be queen and blames Emma for her destroyed hopes. Yet another face she cannot trust.

This book was my first ebook on Kindle ever. I don’t know exactly why I chose this particular one, I just wanted to read something about Saxon England. Emma of Normandy is a queen I didn’t know anything about, but her name is often mentioned in historical podcasts. So I thought I might give this book, which is the first part in a trilogy about her life, a try. And I’m so glad I did, because I love this book.

The novel is written in the third person narrative from four different perspectives: Emma (the main character), Aethelred, Aethelstan (the heir to the throne) and Elgiva. This was definitely a surprise, as I thought the story would mainly be about Emma. I always like to read from different perspectives and the fact that you also get an insight in the troubled king’s mind really contributed to the story. Aethelred was not my favorite character, but reading from his point of view made hem feel more human, although I didn’t agree with his choices.

I did like the perspectives of Aethelstan and Emma the most. I could feel Emma’s insecurities and fears of a king rejecting her love and even her existence at some times. She was quite alone, except for her Norman ladies, at a strange court. Stepmother to sons who are her age and who don’t want to see her pregnant because that child will become a competitor for the throne itself. And then you have Elgiva, a vain noble girl who loathes Emma and is used by her family to grab power. I hope that her story becomes more balanced in the coming novels.

The battle with the Danes and the massacre at St. Brice’s Day are key events in the story. The Danish treat comes from Swein Forkbeard and his son Cnut. I feel we will see more of them in the next books. I found them very interesting side characters.

Bracewell crafts a believable story, but it’s important to note that there aren’t many facts from Emma’s early years as queen to start from. Some chapters of the books start with an ancient text from the Anglo-saxon chronicle, which was always a nice introduction. But sources from that era are scarce.

The author takes some liberties and also adds a romance, but it didn’t bother me at all. Bracewell even includes quite ‘modern’ themes such as panic attacks and claustrophobia. I liked her writing style, I loved the different characters (apart from Elgiva) and I look forward to reading the next part. I want to discover more of Emma’s life.

As this is Bracewell’s debut novel, I’m even more impressed. Highly recommended!

Rating: 5 out of 5.