Narrated by Katie Firth
Length: 13 hours 40 minutes
The year is 1002, and Emma of Normandy is beginning her trip overseas to become the bride of King Ethelred of England. These are hard years, for England is under the threat of the murderous Danes, and Emma’s bond with Ethelred is England’s main strategy for forging an alliance with Normandy. But what Emma finds when she arrives is a cold and calculating man who is beset and tormented by visions that he cannot escape. Emma, also, cannot escape the hideous attentions of her husband, and it’s clear to all that his only use for Emma is to provide a royal heir. Ethelred is truly desirous of another: one who will do anything to be queen and will try to use might and witchcraft to smite Emma again and again. But the people of England love their new queen and are united by her, which is exactly as Ethelred hopes. Emma must also contend with the other sons of Ethelred, who are covetous of their father’s crown and know that if Emma births a son, they may be disinherited. This court is a venomous and dark place for Emma, and one misstep could have grave consequences for her. But under the king’s vicious proclivities and dark mind, Emma comes to find a kindred soul in the most unlikely of places. As she begins to feel real love for the first time in her life, the greatest of dangers lurks just around the corner, threatening to undo both the kingdom of England and her homeland as well. Fraught with tension and richly dramatic, this is epic historical fiction at its grandest. Emma is a survivor, but can she survive this?
One of the reasons that I was so enticed by this book was because it dealt with a time that I had never before explored: namely, an England before King Henry. This book deals with the very birth of England, when the Danes were a ferocious force that threatened to take over large parts of Normandy, England, and any other place that seduced their senses. It was a dark look at a dark part of history that was not taught to me, where brave men and women fought for a budding nation that had yet to see glory. I was definitely surprised at the way this book ended though, as it seems that it’s going to be a trilogy, and many questions were left unanswered. Katie Firth is the narrator of this thoroughly enthralling tale, and her voice was made for this story. Tight with restrained emotion and abundantly alluring, she tells the tale with superior skill, managing to sound regal and forceful without being overbearing. A better choice could not have been made.
Emma is young when she sets off to forge her father’s alliance, but she is not without courage or resolve. She is headstrong, and will not bend to the king’s will, but thwart it, which reaps grave consequences for her. The king has guilt on his soul and fears that he is being pursued by the ghost of his brother, the rightful heir, who was murdered so that Ethelred could take control. Some believe that he is mad, and I would certainly agree that based on his actions, the king was not sane or fit to run England. King Ethelred saw evil everywhere, even in his innocent wife, and in his fear, he forced her to remain confined, where she would rule only by proxy. Devilish and dangerous, he is a force greater than Emma, whose courage lands her little reward.
There is another woman in this story who will remain unnamed, and it’s this woman who wants to be queen. She believes that prophecy has told her that she will one day rule the land, and does her best to seduce the king and put Emma in the most dangerous situations she can. Her countenance is beautiful, but it hides a heart that is so black and vile that many fear her—and none respect her. It’s her doing that destroys kingdoms, and her cowardly way of slinking away when the damage is done speaks to great character flaws that all but she can see. She is truly the queen’s foil, and she is desperate. Some may even consider her as mad as the king, but her plotting is more queer and dangerous than his could ever be.
Emma is virtually alone in this sea of madness. War is spreading around her like fire when out from the flames comes an ally: one that she never would have counted on, and one who brings with him fierce bravery along with a desire for the queen that is dangerous to both. He is stubborn and willful, yet he is the only one that Emma can trust. No one must know about this love, for it’s forbidden to take anything from the king, and this man especially must watch his moves and motives. All this is crafted in such fine and emboldening suspense that it’s like reading an action novel. There are plotters and heros, the wicked and the damned, but Bracewell never loses the thread of her story, and keeps it all barely contained in a combustible narrative that will leave readers taking shallow breaths and waiting for the impending disaster to unfold.
I really have to say that this was one of the most finely honed tales of historical fiction that I have ever had the pleasure to listen to. Its driving plot was almost punishing in its alacrity and power, and there was no way that I could predict what was coming next. There is enough darkness and evil in this book to infect everyone, yet there is love and honor as well. If you are new to historical fiction, this is the book for you; if you are not, there is no way you should miss out on what Bracewell has to offer. A more splendid book I couldn’t imagine. Now, where is the sequel?
This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.