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.

The empty throne by Bernard Cornwell

Lord Aethelred, the ruler of Mercia, is dying. Leaving no heir to the already weakened kingdom. King Edward of Wessex and his father-in-law, the cunning Aethelhelm, desire to fulfill Alfred’s dream of a united England, while his sister Athelflaed is fighting the Danes in the northern part of the realm. As Aethelred’s widow, both Edward and the Mercian lords would see her retire to a nunnery. Meanwhile, her warrior and lover, Uhtred of Bebbanburg, is still recovering from wounds inflicted by Cnut’s sword. Who will lay claim to the empty throne?

If you would’ve told me a few years ago that one of my favorite book series would be about bloody battles between the English and the Danes, I’d not have believed you. And I admit that it was only after watching the first season of the BBC-series The Last Kingdom that I found my way to Cornwell’s epic tale about Uhtred, a christian war lord raised by Danes.

The empty throne is the 8th installment in the Saxon series, currently used to shoot season 5. But I loved it again every bit. Yes Cornwell uses the same recipe, but it’s a proven one. And he dares to surprise you, as he does with the prologue in this book.

Uhtred is no longer young and weakened after the last epic battle at the end of The pagan lord. A new generation of ambitious man preys on his postion as Aethelflaed advisor and war lord. And his children will play their part. But as you could expect, Uhtred may not be as sickly as they think.

This may not be my favorite part from the series, as it is less action-packed. It lacks a grand battle finale. But the political schemes about the succesion of Mercia are intriguing, as is Uhtred’s excursion to Wales to find a sword—what else? And the ending might still surprise you. It certainly did surprise me. Uhtred is not out of trouble yet… I’m looking forward to read Warriors of the storm very soon!

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Did you read any of the Saxon series? Or do have you some recommendation about the viking era?