Determined to outmaneuver her adversaries, Emma forges alliances with influential men at court and wins the affection of the English people. But her growing love for a man who is not her husband and the imminent threat of a Viking invasion jeopardize both her crown and her life.
I made the mistake of dismissing this book when it started to pop up in lists of upcoming historical fiction. Something about the generic cover with the now obligatory faceless woman led me to dismiss the book as just another "queen" novel. It was only when I started to see glowing review after glowing review all around the blogging community that I reconsidered.
I'm very glad I did. There are so few historical novels with lead female protagonists that have not been done to death (Helen Hollick did reach this territory first with her novel "The Forever Queen") and I appreciated the opportunity to spend time in Saxon England with Emma, future mother of Edward the Confessor. Throughout the book, I kept remembering my visit to Westminster Abbey a few years ago and the opportunity that was given to all members of the Christian faith who wished to pray in the holiest part of the Abbey - we were allowed back into the small room that surrounds the tomb of Edward the Confessor. In a world of museum pieces behind glass, it was incredible to me to have the opportunity to sit a few feet from the grave of an English king who lived ten centuries ago. His tomb looked impossibly ancient; more like a tree or a rock that had always existed in that spot.
It's a great credit to Bracewell - a first-time novelist - that this poorly documented and almost incomprehensible time in our own modern mind feels quite real but also quite clearly aligned with unfamiliar values and mores. At times, Crown is very dark. The warfare and treatment of women at that time is not glossed over. Some readers may feel uncomfortable with these graphic depictions but these scenes aren't prurient - they're for a purpose. Emma undergoes severe mistreatment at the hands of her husband and Bracewell details that abuse unflinchingly so that we understand the stakes of Emma's survival.
I wasn't too fond of the romantic subplot that gave Emma a small measure of hope in her unrelentingly cheerless and unsettled existence. The relationship felt contrived and wasn't developed enough to justify the incredible risks the two characters took to be together. Ultimately, it didn't bother me too greatly as that element of the book stayed a sub-plot and since we know so little of Emma's life, Bracewell didn't go directly against documented historical facts in creating the relationship.
Emma herself is the great strength of the book. She is true to her time - a powerless woman who never anachronistically fights to be heard but who nevertheless works in her own quiet ways - observing, building alliances and remaining strong in the midst of a treacherous court. It was quite enjoyable to read of new battles and fears and to see England on the verge of becoming a real kingdom while still very much a collection of squabbling regions, counties and fiefdoms.
Bracewell writes clean, streamlined prose. She wisely tells the story from the viewpoint of four main characters: Emma, her husband Athelred the Unready, his son and a lady in waiting at the court. The shifting perspectives emphasize the constantly changing stakes in the fight for power and lend an almost thriller-like pace to the plot.
Crown is the first in a trilogy on the life of Emma of Normandy and this installment ends with the birth of her first son, Edward the Confessor. I was so engaged by her life story that I cheated and went online to read about the rest of her life. Fortunately, this is just the start of Emma's eventful life and I'll be eagerly awaiting the next books in the series.