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The Steel Beneath the Silk

Adult; General Fiction (including literary and historical); (Market)

In early 11th century England, as viking armies bent on conquest ravage the kingdom, England’s Norman born queen must outwit formidable enemies who will stop at nothing to destroy her world. Amid the chaos of war, and yoked to an aging, inept king, Queen Emma forges alliances that will bring a lasting peace to the kingdom and preserve the lives of her children.
Bracewell’s engrossing conclusion to her Normandy trilogy (after The Price of Blood) revisits 11th-century England, where King Æthelred’s Norman queen Emma has been married to her husband for a decade, has given birth to three children, and finds herself unsure who to trust. Her husband does not treat her well, his alliances have stirred dismay among his fellow Englishmen, and Danish King Swein Forkbeard has plans to oust him from his throne. Those plans appeal to Elgiva, the English concubine of Swein’s son, Cnut. As the Danish invasion begins, allegiances are called into question, and Emma must work to ensure that she and her children survive amid the chaos of war.

Bracewell’s extensive research adds convincing realism as she expertly details hard choices, secret loyalties, and brutal murders. While Bracewell focuses intently on the battle scenes and the changing landscape of allegiances, she also breathes life into her characters, giving them singular voices and emphasizing how broken promises of fealty impact relationships –and sometimes influence history. The concerns of her 11th century cast will resonate with historical fiction readers today.

Bracewell brings the lives of the novel’s women into sharp focus. Though Æthelred often discounts Emma’s opinions, other men respect her, as evidenced by her love for Æthelred’s oldest son from his previous marriage, Athelstan. Despite the knowledge that her desires are subservient to the demands of Æthelred, Emma works within the societal constraints to exert her influence and ensure the survival of her children. Bracewell examines the cunning of Elgiva, whose power over Cnut is limited by a marriage not blessed by the church, while Elgiva plots to continue to be important to Cnut, hoping that she will one day become queen herself. The efforts of these women to influence their destinies despite the control exerted by the men in their lives is an essential thematic element throughout the novel.

Takeaway: An 11th-century English queen seeks to make her mark in the world while ensuring her family's survival amid the dangers of war.

Great for fans of: Carol McGrath’s The Handfasted Wife, Donna Woolfolk Cross’s Pope Joan.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: A-
Illustrations: A
Editing: A
Marketing copy: A