When fifteen-year-old Emma leaves her home in Normandy to marry Aethelred II of England, she has no inkling of the tough passage that lays ahead. Barely widowed, Aethelred has no real desire to take another bride but an alliance with Normandy could prove valuable in the fight against the Vikings who are plaguing England with their summer raids. Aethelred agrees to marry Emma but when she arrives in England, he leaves her under no illusion her main purpose is to bear his children.
Dismayed by Aethelred’s cruelty, Emma quickly realises her place at court is under threat until she bears the son who will displace Aethelred’s older sons from their inheritance. Aethelred’s first wife was never crowned as queen, and since part of the marriage negotiations insisted on Emma being crowned queen in her own right, her children will take precedence over those from the first marriage. However, the situation proves a moot one as Emma fails to conceive and Aethelred’s attentions wander towards the voluptuous Elgiva who lost her chance to become queen when Emma was chosen in her stead. As the situation with the Vikings grows more tense, Emma’s situation at court becomes increasingly precarious but she soon finds an ally in the most unexpected of places.
Shadow on the Crown is the first instalment of a trilogy focusing on the life of Emma of Normandy who became Queen of England twice, firstly with Aethelred II and secondly, with Cnut. Although not much is known about Emma, Bracewell does a fantastic job of bringing the Anglo-Saxon queen to life and the fictitious elements of the story are crafted with great care making them highly plausible. Emma is an engaging character who easily earns our respect and sympathy from the outset as she is used as a political pawn by her brother, Richard, Duke of Normandy. Emma’s hopes are quickly dashed when she realises her husband never wanted to marry her in the first place and proceeds to treat her with contempt.
It is the portrayal of Aethelred where things fall apart as he merely comes across as the stereotypical evil husband character we’ve all met before in these types of books. His behaviour towards Emma is completely vile to the point of raping her when he feels like she needs to be taught a lesson but it just seemed over the top to me. We have no real way of knowing how the real Aethelred felt about his wives and children but he is definitely set up to be the bad guy here. Another thing I did not like was Emma’s growing attraction to Aethelred’s eldest son, Athelstan, who was initially hostile towards his new stepmother and then becomes inexplicably enamoured with her as they spend more time together. This storyline is verging on soap opera territory and I’m thankful Bracewell avoided making him the father of Emma’s first child.
The aspect of Aethelred’s character which is the most interesting is his descent into madness. As a young boy, Aethelred witnessed the murder of his older brother, Edward, an event that allowed Aethelred to become king and he is becoming increasingly haunted by it. There are hints Aethelred’s own mother may have been behind Edward’s death as she felt her own son was more worthy of the crown as the son of an anointed queen. Aethelred’s mother situation was similar to Emma’s in that she was crowned queen while the first wife was not, making Aethelred the true heir in her eyes. Aethelred is all too aware of the problems he will face with his eldest sons if he has sons with Emma and he fears the bloodshed that could tear his family apart which is exacerbating his madness. When Emma finally gives birth to a son, Edward, the book takes some dramatic licence here when Aethelred names the new baby as his heir although this was never done in reality. The announcement drives a wedge between Aethelred’s two families which I presume will reverberate throughout the remaining books.
The rest of the characters are well drawn and Bracewell manages to deal with the relationships and the similar names very well, although the changing viewpoints within chapters make things a bit confusing at times. The air of foreboding around Aethelred’s older sons is also a little heavy-handed if you are familiar with their fate but is easily overlooked, although I don’t think Athelstan makes a convincing romantic lead. Considering the era portrayed, the female characters are particularly strong, while Emma is still very young in this part of the trilogy, she will be formidable when she comes into her own. Elgiva is a strongly sexual character and although much of her actions are dictated by her father, she knows how to use her allure to her advantage and that makes her far more interesting than just any king’s mistress. Elgiva is a powerful rival for Emma and it will be interesting to see how the relationship between these two progresses over the coming years.