The Price of Blood | Patricia Bracewell | 2015 | HarperCollins | 426p | Review copy | Buy the book
Emma of Normandy might be Queen to England’s King Aethelred but this is a loveless marriage. Now that Emma has borne the King a son, Edward, he has little need of her. But Emma’s position is far more complicated than that. As Aethelred’s only annointed Queen, Emma’s son now replaces Aethelred’s line of grown, spirited sons in the succession, while Aethelred’s daughters regard her with little affection. But as the sister of Normandy’s Duke, Emma cannot be completely disregarded, especially now that Aethelred needs all the allies he can get – the Vikings are back. Aethelred hangs on to his kingdom by a knife’s edge. In these most brutal of days, Aethelred has even more to worry about than marauding Danes. The country is falling apart.
The Price of Blood continues the story begun by Shadow on the Crown, one of my favourite novels of 2013. You’d certainly benefit from having read that first but The Price of Blood does stand alone very well, sensitively filling in the background and assuming no prior knowledge. The characters drawn so well in Shadow on the Crown now return, perhaps most memorably Elgiva, daughter of the house of Mercia, as well as Athelstan, Aethelred’s eldest son.
Aethelred himself is growing old and his temper has not improved. With the Danes threatening from north and south, Aethelred suspects treachery in everyone, including his sons. The lord of Mercia, Aelfhelm, has grown especially powerful, secretly negotiating with his Viking neighbours. The pawn in his plotting is his daughter, Elgiva. This young woman might be strong, independent and shrewd but in the early 11th century she can be no match for her lord father. She is to be married to the Viking king’s son, Cnut. It says an awful lot about Elgiva that as soon as she learns the identity – and potential power – of her husband, she decides she really rather likes him. Elgiva isn’t an especially likeable figure but it’s hard not to admire her. Elgiva and Emma see themselves as great rivals but, actually, in some ways they are very similar. One feels for Elgiva even more when her father and brothers pay the price for their plotting. Much of the novel follows Elgiva on her flight to obscurity, into secrecy, and it’s a remarkable story, even more so because much of it is true.
Emma’s story is in many ways harder because she is emotionally alone, tied to her children as long as her husband allows her to be and no longer. This is an immensely sad tale. She is as strong as Elgiva – she knows her royal duty and doesn’t flinch from it, using her influence on church and state to help defend England and keep Aethelred from killing his sons. But she has no independence. Her feelings have to be kept well buried. It’s painful to watch Emma stand tall, upright and resolute, when she is so alone. A fascinating, strong heroine existing in a male-dominated world.
England in the early 11th century was a dreadful time (with its own kind of pain for women) and we see it all here – war, treachery and disease. Death was never far away. Accidents were common – we see several here. Aethelred is not the only man to lose sons in this book, people suffer, childbirth kills, soldiers slaughter. Aethelred struggles between making war and paying off the Vikings but there is a strong sense in The Price of Blood that he has been abandoned by God. Aethelred thinks so, too. He is a haunted man, troubled by the past and present.
Patricia Bracewell makes fine use of her sources, many of the characters are based upon real lives and several are familiar from history, such as Bishop Wulfstan. Sections of the book are introduced by passages from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, reminding us that these terrible days really did take place a thousand years ago almost to the day. I can think of few periods of history in which I would have liked to live less but Patricia Bracewell does a marvellous job of painting it in bright colours, pulling events and people out of a period of history which is difficult to comprehend. The novel is full of drama and action, both physical and emotional. It is a sad book, life is too hard and brief for these people to be otherwise, but there is a dignity and calm to Emma that makes her stand out amongst all of the corruption, greed and fear. Patricia Bracewell writes with beauty and elegance and in Emma she has chosen a worthy subject.
Shadow on the Crown