Shadow on the Crown by Patricia Bracewell

Emma of Normandy is only a teenager when she is deemed the sister strong enough to wed the troubled King Aethelred of England. Normandy and England have an uneasy peace. Danish Viking raiders frequently attack English shores, while the Danish leader, Forkbeard, appears to be allied with Emma’s brother, the Duke of Normandy. Upon reaching England and wedding Aethelred, Emma finds herself completely alone and surrounded by those who mistrust her and her motives: some who seek merely to undermine her, and others who seek her life. A few trusted women and men live and travel with her, but no one can protect her from the cruel, slightly demented Aethelred who is racked with guilt and fear over the death of his brother years ago or the attractive and unattainable Athelstan, son of the king and current heir to the throne or Elgiva, the seductive, conniving would-be queen whose place was usurped by Emma. With exquisite prose and a thorough but not condescending knowledge of the world of 1002 AD, Bracewell writes of the lives of those we seldom discuss in history courses, but whose actions changed the shape of the world. The children of these characters paved the way for William the Conqueror in profound ways. Although the story occasionally strays onto predictable paths, the events unfold in surprising ways. After Emma succumbs to the inevitable, the novel seems to rush to its triumphant but cliff-hanger ending. Bracewell deals gently but realistically with her characters. Few authors indeed would allow a woman who lost a child to mourn that child so obviously, and to return to the pain of that grief so frequently and believably. If that weren’t remarkable enough, Bracewell also gives all of her characters, men and women alike, depth and personality and legitimate, often contradictory viewpoints. Bracewell’s admirable and excellent debut novel should stand proudly on the shelves beside those of Alison Weir, Philippa Gregory, and Geraldine Brooks.

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