A Hollow Crown by Helen Hollick
As you probably know, I’m a big fan of historical fiction. It’s my favorite genre. A good bodice-ripper is always fun, but I really prefer the more serious fiction that is well grounded in historical fact. I was so excited to discover Helen Hollick. I was drawn to the cover mostly because of the quote by Sharon Kay Penman, who said “Compelling, convincing, and unforgettable.” This is a prime example of quotes driving readership! Sharon Kay Penman is my favourite (hee!) author of all time.
Following the life of Emma, known as the Saxon Queen of England, the book begins in 1002, the year she arrives in England from Normandy as the 13 year-old royal bride to Aethelred the Unready. Unfortunately for Emma, Aethelred is a blithering idiot and a failure of a king. They are married for (I think) 16 years, all of which are miserable. Aethelred’s reign is threatened by marauding vikings, and eventually he is toppled from the throne by the Viking King Svein Forkbeard. Then there is some fighting and some deaths, and Emma eventually married Svein’s son, Cnut, and becomes his queen. Luckily, her marriage to Cnut is much happier, and is described by chroniclers of the time as being a true love-match. After 16 years, Cnut dies of a heart attack, and the sovereignty is again thrown for a loop. Emma’s sons by Aethelred claim the throne, as does her son by Cnut. There are some more battles, and some more deaths, but ultimately Harthacnut wins the crown—until he dies 2 years later. Now the only person left to take the kingdom is Edward, who is (unfortunately) just as maladept as his hapless father, Aethelred. The book ends with Emma mourning her losses, and gripped with angst about the future of England under such a poor king as her son Edward (who later becomes known as The Confessor).
Wow. That was a lot of plot. I won’t even start trying to describe why I love this book so much, except to say that the writing is lovely. My only complaint is that just when you start to like a character, they are pretty much guaranteed to be killed off. But I suppose the 11th century was quite brutal. Overall I would definitely recommend this book for a good history of the Wessex kings, an oft-ignored era of British time.
The Time of Singing by Elizabeth Chadwick
As much as I would love to give a ringing endorsement to this book, I simply can’t. The subject is interesting: Roger Bigod, heir to the Earldom of Norfolk under Henry II and his love affair with Henry’s mistress, Ida de Tosnay. And the writing itself is not that bad, a little soap opera-y at times, but not terrible.
Unfortunately it all fell apart for me at the end. I was reading the author’s notes, and Elizabeth Chadwick admitted that she consulted a psychic when writing this book to learn more about the personalities of her main characters. That was more than I could take. While I was reading I thought it odd that she kept referring to Roger’s love of hats, or Ida’s obsession with embroidery. Usually good historical fiction tends not to mention too much about details like that, because they are impossible to know. But when Chadwick admitted that the psychic told her about Roger’s hats and Ida’s embroidery, I felt a little sick to my stomach.
Perhaps I shouldn’t judge. Every artist gets inspiration in their own way. But consulting the Akashic Records? Come on. Give me a break. As sad I am to turn away from an author, I don’t think I’ll be reading anymore Chadwick. But I’m sure her psychic already told her that.