The Price of Blood
Patricia Bracewell
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The Price of Blood
Patricia Bracewell
448 pages
February 2015
rated 3 of 5 possible stars

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It has been four years since Emma stood at the door of Canterbury Cathedral as the peace-loving bride of the English King Aethelred. She’s still drawn to her husband’s eldest son, handsome Athelstan. Bitter at his father’s accusations, Athelstan brings to Emma a measure of security and compassion when she finds herself caught between the demands of her newly adopted country and Aethelred’s curious sense of unease that Emma, together with her stepsons, plots against him.

No character in The Price of Blood is without blemish. Aethelred may be an honorable man, and he may be seeking to defy heaven and hell and anything else that seeks to break his grasp upon the Royal House of Cerdic, but he also has a brooding rage directed towards a vengeful God. Faced with many evils, Aethelred finds his reign hijacked by the Northern Lords and their alliances with King Swein Forkbeard of Denmark who, with his son Cnut, is determined to cement the Danish influence in Northumbria.

Seeking to solidify his hold on the Northern Shires, Aethelred makes a fatal error of judgment when he murders Aelfelm, Elgiva’s father. Terrified for her life, Elgiva goes on the run, ending up at the Northern borders where she falls into the arms of Cnut. Showered with gifts (“a Viking hoard of gold and jewels”), Elgiva is fuelled by revenge as she plots and schemes against an embattled Aethelred. Planning to become Cnut’s new bride, Elgiva hopes the marriage will be an alliance that will inspire the lords like Thurbrand, men so dissatisfied with the kingship of Aethelred that they will pledge themselves to the warrior king of Denmark and his son.

This is a novel of chivalry, savagery, and treachery. Moving between Aethelred, Emma, Athelstan, and Elgiva’s voices, Bracewell portrays a country on the edge in a landscape where even the archbishops fear for England and its people. Aethelred becomes more paranoid, swamped by his bad war planning and the ill-advised machinations of those closest to him. He watches, mortified, unable to prevent the Danes as they move though the countryside, systematically scavenging the land. From East Anglia to the Thames Valley to the Fenlands, England is brutalized and burnt, its fields of battle awash in the blood and the bodies of the dead.

Meanwhile, the ghost of Aethelred’s dead brother, Edward is literally walking the earth, haunting Aethelred at every turn. A dark and hideous wraith amid the shadows, the battles, released from Edward’s malignant spell, puts little faith in Aethelred’s ambitious sons' protestations of loyalty. Heavy with fear, and tormented by a terrible foreboding, Aethelred turns to the only man he can trust: his Machiavellian ealdorman, Lord Eadric.

Emma’s every instinct warns her that Eadric is not a man to trust. Behind his dark good looks and his “honeyed words,” Emma senses a calculating mind, an emptiness of the soul, and a reflection of the widening gulf between Athelstan and the King. Terror surrounds Aethelred, including the war and the oppressive countryside where Emma is forced to grieve, her heart only occasionally healed by her baby son, Edward, and by Athelstan, who is called to London to defend the City in a situation that becomes increasingly unsustainable with each passing day.

This is a time of religious fundamentalism in which Aethelred’s constant prayers do little to counteract the unbridled gossip, intrigue, whispers and treachery of his court. Emma is not immune to her husband’s wrath. She finds herself caught between passion and duty, testing her mettle in a deadly power play of danger and indiscretion. Emerging as one of the most popular and loved queens, Emma exists in a world where daughters (and women) are expendable--political game pieces on a vast chess board covering all of Christian Europe.

While Emma tries to ready her Edward for the role that God has ordained him, Elgiva and Cnut hide themselves away, waiting for the right moment and dancing in passion, each with a personal agenda. Aethelred continues to use Emma as it suits him, constantly offending her by telling her not to shoulder the responsibilities of a queen. All he really wants is nothing more than a “bed mate.” Emma knows that, apart from Athelstan, her sons-in-law view her as a Norman and the pawn of her older brother, Richard, Duke of Normandy, who passively watches the war from across the channel with a mixture of expectancy and caution.

Although I thought the novel was sometimes tedious and overly long, Bracewell writes with great periods of dramatic flourish, exposing the bloody machinations in pursuit of power where the people of England placed their trust in a king who seemed to fail them. In this rather bittersweet look at a country in crisis, Bracewell sets us up for the next volume, where Emma’s involvement with the Norse king becomes something much larger: an innocent accessory caught in a web of power, the young Queen used as leverage in a high-stakes game of power and treachery.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2015

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