December 9, 2013

Review: Shadow on the Crown by Patricia Bracewell

Shadow on the Crown by Patricia Bracewell
Series: First in an expected trilogy
Published: 2013, Viking
Genre: Adult Historical Fiction
Source: Library
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“You must ever be prepared within yourself to face what trials may lay in store for you. let this be your first lesson: No one else must see you like this, Emma. Do you hear me? However great the provocation you must never allow anyone to see your fear.”

As the younger sister of Richard II, duke of Normandy, Emma has very little control over her own life. So when her brother and Æthelred II, the current king of England, forge a marriage alliance between Normandy and England, Emma has little say. The marriage would provide Æthelred with a new wife and an alliance with Normandy against frequent coastal attacks made by the Danes. As not merely the wife of the king, but a coronated queen of England, Emma’s family expects her to provide some guidance for the king and overseas support for Normandy’s causes.

Once in England, however, Emma is an outcast. With the exception of a Norman retinue, she’s left behind her home, family, and friends. Æthelred does not trust her and wants nothing to do with her outside of her knowledge Norman and Danish politics. Her husband’s children do not want a stepmother, especially one whose future children might challenge the current succession. Surrounded by suspicion, dislike, and fear, Emma’s new position is not enviable. Intelligent, impassioned, and outspoken, Emma is not quite the political pawn that anyone expected, however, and she is willing to do what it takes to become recognized as the true Queen of England.

Shadow on the Crown is not merely Emma’s story, which was a surprise to me. Emma is the main narrator and the majority of the plot focuses on her, but she still shares the narration with three other characters: her new husband Æthelred, her son-in-law and the crown prince Athelstan, and Elgiva, daughter of one of the more powerful English ealdormen. I am not normally a fan of multiple narrators, and it took me a while to warm up to the switches between them. Through selecting these key characters as narrators, however, Bracewell is able to paint a much richer portrait of England at the turn of the twelfth century.

Of these narrators, two are more typically good while two are more typically evil. Emma and Athelstan  both genuinely care about the fate of England and its people. As Æthelred’s decisions become increasingly driven by fear and paranoia, these two each look for ways to curtail any negative consequences of his actions. In contrast to Emma and Athelstan, Æthelred and Elgiva are driven by fierce passions and selfish desires. Elgiva uses Æthelred’s attraction to her to gain what little power she can, while Æthelred’s actions seem driven primarily by his guilt over the murder of his brother Edward (which he did not commit but feels some responsibility for it). As the title implies, the spectre of Edward literally shadows Æthelred’s perception of his kingdom.

It would have been easy for Bracewell to leave her characterization at that, to leave her narrators evenly split between good and evil. But she doesn’t go that route, for which I am grateful. As the protagonist, Emma is quite complex: she has conflicting loyalties between her family, her new husband, and her personal sense of morality. Despite being a female living in the twelfth century, she possesses a considerable deal of agency. While Emma’s actions are driven primarily by the best benefit of her people (English and Norman), it is easy to suppose that Elgiva’s actions stand in stark contrast, as Elgiva manipulates men to gain power. She’s not a likable character, but neither is she a two-dimensional villain; in a time when women have little standing in society, both characters find some degree of strength and self-empowerment.

Against the female narrators, Æthelred and Athelstan were not quite as interesting to me. I hated Æthelred for abusing Emma and for the many reckless decisions he makes that endanger his country. My appreciation for Athelstan’s character--and his willingness to see Emma outside of her role as the Queen of England, as a scared woman in need of friendship--grew incrementally as the book progressed. I did feel, however, that Shadow on the Crown is a story that belongs to the women more than the men, that the men’s narrations did not have as much to offer.

I loved Bracewell’s decision to not only base this story on the true events recorded within The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, but to provide snippets of the text itself to accompany key sections of the story. They really helped ground the story in reality. I often find when reading historical fiction about much older eras that sometimes it’s hard not to focus on the fictionality of the stories. Bracewell’s inclusion of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and impressive research, however, continually caused me to realize that these were real people, and many of the events that are recounted did, in fact, happen.

It should be noted, however, that Bracewell does admit to using some authorial license. Shadow on the Crown only covers Emma’s first few years in England, which is apparently the least-known part of her life. Bracewell details some of the changes and additions she made to historical accounts in her author’s note at the end. Good historical fiction should do more than simply rehash events of a different era, however; it should make them relatable and meaningful. And I cannot deny that Bracewell has done just that in her story. She has drawn attention back to the fascinating Emma of Normandy, and the western Europe of the twelfth century.

I was quite impressed with Shadow on the Crown. While I had some issues with Bracewell’s choice of multiple narrators, this is still a strongly researched work of historical fiction. It accomplishes everything I want in my historical fiction, merging together history and fiction to create a well-written story that allows me to learn in the process. I cannot believe I haven’t heard of Emma of Normandy before, to be honest. I’ll definitely be continuing with Bracewell’s series and also seek out other stories about Emma and her “oft-forgotten period of history.”

Rating: 4 stars

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Amanda loves few things better than sitting down with a cup of tea and a book. She frequently stays up far too late, telling herself she just needs to finish one more page. When she's not wrapped up in the stories of others, Amanda works as a children's librarian in a public library.


  1. I don't usually go for such deeply historical novels, but you've made this sound really interesting. I'll be keeping my eye out for what you think of the rest of the series before committing to it. I'm very curious to see what you think of Burial Rites, however. I hope you enjoy it, Amanda, and great review!

    1. Oh you're missing out, Keertana! There are tons of wonderful historical fiction books out there. :) I definitely recommend this one.
      Also - I've finished Burial Rites but my review is scheduled for January. I'll just say that it's so, so good. It's historical fiction but also very much literary fiction.

  2. This is a brilliant review Amanda, I love how you described the depth and detail that the author brought to the story and like Keertana I don't normally read historical novels, but I will certainly be adding this book to my tbr for the future! :)

    1. Yay I'm glad to hear that, Jasprit! And thank you!


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