I usually avoid reading historical novels set in time periods that I actually know a little about (like the time I tried to read a medieval Mills & Boon and gave up on p.3 when one of the characters was named ‘Nicole’) but after reading Bracewell’s biography on Amazon I decided to give it a go.
I felt deeply deeply conflicted about this book. There were lots of things I really loved about it, but many many things also that I did not love. I read the two of them in a couple of days, so I can’t have hated it, and yet I came away with a feeling of irritation and dissatisfaction.
So, what did I like? All of the historical detail was wonderful. I loved all of the detail about the clothes and the architecture. The problem was, this was somewhat muffled by a tendency to patronise, like when right at the start, we have it spelled out to us that an archbishop is i.m.p.o.r.t.a.n.t. both politically and spiritually, as though this was some great revelation. Another huge bugbear for me was that Bracewell made out that Emma was some kind of genius for speaking more than one language – pretty common, especially for medieval princesses with non-native mothers, to speak several languages. But nonetheless, I thought it was a very vivid and convincing Anglo-Saxon world.
Which (unfortunately) brings me to my problems with the book. There were a few niggles with style. I found all of the Æthelred-haunted-by-ghost-of-his-brother stuff pretty cringe and clumsy, and he was ALWAYS very pointedly not listening to advice to the point that I was like I GET IT, HE IS UNREADY.* That said, I liked how Bracewell picked up on contemporary representations of Æthelred as a massive man-whore. Besides that, there were times when the descriptive language just didn’t work for me – some of the metaphors and smilies had me rolling my eyes to myself. Emma, at one point, feels ‘as cold and empty as a bell that had lost its tongue’. I mean, OK, but unless you are literally Virgil and you are going to commit, maybe leave the extended similes at home? Things like this didn’t add to something that was, at times, really vivid and engaging and just slowed me down as a reader and made me frustrated.
But even with those things, I think I would have been more favourably inclined were it not for my main sticking-point with these novels. Both The Shadow on the Crown and The Price of Blood are suffering from a pretty bad Madonna/Whore complex. They both centre around Emma and Elgiva (who is actually Ælfgifu of Northampton, but whom Bracewell has sensibly modernised in order to get around the fact that roughly 50% of the women associated with the royal court during the reigns of Æthelred and Cnut were called Ælfgifu). Emma is kind, wise, noble, principled, brave, beautiful, dignified and dutiful to a completely dickish husband. Elgiva is just your regular slutfaced ho-bag, complete with ‘wanton curls’, flashing eyes, and massive tits in a too-tight dress. Elgiva manages to be shallow, cowardly, reckless, simultaneously self-centred and co-dependent, ineffective and able to accidentally bring ruin on several of the people she comes into contact with. All in all, what might have been a wonderful series was hampered by one of its own great strengths, the fact that Bracewell obviously feels a very strong connection with Emma of Normandy. Emma could not be any more perfect, and this representation seems to come at the expense of almost every other character.
Similarly, I liked the political intrigue, and I thought that Bracewell captured the international tensions in C11th England really wonderfully, but characters tended to appear in black and white, rather than shades of grey. I liked the focus on the Æthelings, but Athelstan, who appears as something of a leading man, has no discernible personality beyond a) blue eyes, b) long-suffering dutifulness, and c) being more sensible than his father. The closest we get to rounded characters are Edmund (the future Edmund Ironside), who is not very nice to Emma but is probably OK, and is actually mainly painted as a sort of emo teenager with a sulking problem, and Svein Forkbeard, who is horrible all the time. (Some of the men say that they like him and he is a man of honour, but when he appears he is basically Stereotype Viking Who Likes Ships and Money and Rape.)
So… since I’ve said all of these negative things, why three and a half stars? Well, I did whizz through it, and even though a lot of it irritated me, I found it hard to put down. I’m also sure that if I had read these as a teenager, I would have completely loved them. There were moments that were really great, and all of the historical detail and the awareness of the complex webs of power were there, if the characters through which they were articulated sometimes felt a bit cut-out-y. I’m going to read the next one, so I can’t have disliked it that much!
Just as a side note, one of the Amazon reviews giving it 1* complains that it’s a ‘bodice ripper’. I would disagree with that characterisation. There’s some sex, sure, but it’s almost all “off-stage” in the first book apart from a brutal and upsetting rape. Now, I would classify a bodice-ripper as something like Philippa Gregory, filled with sort of escapisty sex that is unrealistically characterised by constant mutual ecstasy, and designed to titilate. This was – in my opinion – not the case with these novels.
So, to sum up a meandering and confused review, I felt confused. Ultimately, I would recommend these books to a friend, because I would be interested to know what they think. There’s some really engaging stuff going on in them, and I just felt like the strength of the characters didn’t match up to the strength of the wider representation of the period, and Bracewell’s obvious absorption with Emma (or the idea of Emma) ended up inhibiting the characters of those who appear “against” Emma. I think it was flawed, but I enjoyed it, and I’m going to finish the series when it comes out. Would be interested to know what anyone else thinks!
Rating: 3.5 stars
*Unready doesn’t mean unprepared; it’s from the Old English ‘ræd’, meaning advice.