Seventh century England is a hodgepodge of warring Anglo-Saxon states filled with shifting alliances and treacherous grabs for royal power. Kings rise and fall, depending on Woden's Luck. Northumbria, the damp kingdom north of the River Humber, is a state riven with rivalries and kings determined to expand at any cost.
Women have no obvious role in a warrior society, but by using their wits, four women—two queens and two abbesses—make monumental changes. One woman marries a pagan king and successfully converts him to Christianity before he dies in battle. One becomes the most powerful abbess in Northumbria and holds the Great Synod at Whitby Abbey, which brings the kingdom back to the Roman Church. Another becomes queen and keeps political alliances strong despite different religious denominations. The fourth woman ushers in a new age by negotiating with kings and churchmen to establish one united church in the Northumbrian kingdom.
Based on true events and people, this is the story of Northumbria through the eyes of the most important women of their time.
Wagner-Wright imbues her characters with life, conveying a sense of this far-off time and place through arresting, mystical language: “He’s giving Egfrid to the water. The nymphs will take him.” Moments of wry humour and elegant scene setting carry the story, a complex interwoven web threaded with religious conflict and criss-crossing the whole of Northumbria. It’s a well-researched tale but driven by character, with flashes of poignancy and charm making the royal, historical cast convincing and relatable.
The pacing of this novel may divide readers–though it is a fascinating story of upheaval in early Britain, the historical complexities make it difficult to keep track of everyone, especially with such similar character names. Wagner-Wright includes a list of primary characters at the start, in order of appearance, that will help readers trace the extensive genealogy. In the same vein, the glossary of names, terms, and places at the end of the novel–such as “Elf-shot"–lends authenticity to this portrait of a time when people believed that the onset of an unknown disease could be caused by elves firing arrows into the afflicted. Overall, Wagner-Wright’s deft characterization and intricate plotting make this an absorbing read that will appeal to fans of layered, detailed historical fiction.
Takeaway: Historical fiction readers will be absorbed by this intricate tale of memorable Northumbrian women fighting for change.
Great for fans of: Philippa Gregory, Sandra Gulland.
Design and typography: A
Marketing copy: B