In Shadow on the Crown, Bracewell combines historical fact with imagination, fleshing out of events of King Aethelred’s reign and the array of Machiavellian characters who played a major role in the political and cultural evolution of England. In this first of three novels, Aethelred has ascended the throne after the suspicious death of his brother Edward.
He has fathered six sons but lacks a wife, and his hold on the crown is in jeopardy as the Danish
king, Swein Forkbeard, prepares to attack the southern coast. Others like Forkbeard are "like boils upon the land" that will
one day erupt to plague Aethelred.
Writing in lyrical prose and with a fresh perspective, Bracewell introduces her readers to a
cruel but complex man haunted by his past and troubled by his future in a world where a gold crown has become more burden than ornament. The men with lands in the North
urge him to wed Aelfelm's daughter Elgiva, a marriage that would strengthen the bond between
king and the Northern lords. But the desire to “plant a belly in her babe” is considered “devils bargain”
that would further complicate the bond between Aethelred’s adult sons and the troublesome Mercian nobles.
Athelstan, the king’s eldest son, presents himself as a dangerous rival and a
threat, forcing Aethelred to turn his attention to Emma, the young sister of Richard, Duke of Normandy.
The stern, hard-eyed ruthlessness of Forkbeard would hardly be a match made in heaven, so Richard plans for an alliance that would be in the best interests of both France and England. For ambitious Richard, a royal marriage would provide a princely gift he could not easily refuse and enhance his prestige throughout Europe.
With Richard's demand that his sister go to England not as Aethelred’s consort but as his
queen, fifteen-year-old Emma is thrust into a life she is unprepared for with only the single plea from her mother that she must never allow anyone to see her fear. Emma soon realizes that the politics of marriage appear to be every bit as complicated as the politics of kings. When she arrives in Canterbury, Emma cannot dispel the anxiety she feels that the king’s absence is a harbinger of worse things to come. Aethelred’s commands send a shockwave through her, confirming her opinion that he regards her as little more than chattel. In an increasingly difficult world, Queen Emma must learn to demand her Lord's respect.
Buoyed by the secret that the boy who was crowned after King Edgar was not Aethelred but his elder half brother, Emma ponders the truth in the rumors hidden deep in the soul of the man she has just wed. While Aethelred, the Warrior King, grows weary of war, he becomes more suspicious--first of Emma’s loyalties, then of the Danes.
This leads to the most significant disaster of his kingship: the impulsive massacre on the Feast of St. Brice.
With word of its lurid details and gory reports, Emma is plunged into ominous warnings of her brother regarding a new alliance with cold, fiercely calculating Forkbeard.
Throughout these difficult first years, Emma cannot wrest herself from the black thoughts engulfing her. Her journey is one of strength and of fortitude, and she has no illusions about the fate that awaits her. As Norman bride and English
queen, she walks a fine line between the interests of two rulers who demand her fealty at
any cost. Emma largely achieves her objectives, even knowing that Elgiva waits
in the wings to usurp her. Elgiva’s trickery and deceit drives much of Emma’s existence,
and Elgiva’s allegiance does not lie with the king or queen but herself alone.
Unfolding her story in the voices of Emma, Aethelred, Elgiva and tortured Athelstan, Bracewell makes a strong case for this period with excerpts from the
Saxon Chronicle a driving force. Emma and Aethelred’s life eventually sets parameters for the Norman invasion in 1066 as the author builds her finely structured story on a fragile foundation of suspicion and desire. Bracewell captures
Emma's very soul, along with the seeds of destiny and the deep ties of blood placed in her hands.