The Price of Blood by Patricia Bracewell
I’m afraid I knew nothing about Emma of Normandy until I came across this splendid series from Patricia Bracewell. In the first volume, Shadow on the Crown, the young Emma arrives in a hostile country to marry Æthelred of England with little but her own wits to defend her and has to find her place in the court of a brutal, guilt soaked monarch.
When The Price of Blood opens, she has provided her husband with a son, but now she needs to defend him. The family is haunted by twisted loyalties and the country, weakened by poor harvests, is vulnerable to Viking invasion. The air of threat is palpable from the outset, the writing lyrical and atmospheric without being self-indulgent and the world of Queen Emma is convincing from the start. Bracewell’s Emma is a fully formed, believable character summoned out of the remaining scraps of evidence from one of the less well known periods of our history. I look forward to the third volume.
Watch the Lady by Elizabeth Fremantle
Following the success of Queen’s Gambit and Sisters of Treason, Liz Fremantle turns her attention and talent to the remarkable story of Penelope Devereux. Penelope was a beautiful and talented woman who appeared in the court of Elizabeth and was an immediate success there before finding herself pushed into marriage with Robert Rich. Goddaughter of the Queen and a leopard among the political animals of Elizabeth’s court, Penelope embarks on a adulterous affair which is only one of her high risk intrigues. Penelope is a fascinating character and beautifully drawn in this enthralling, moving and immaculately written novel. A remarkable portrait of power games, betrayals, sacrifices and the personalities playing for the highest possible stakes in the autumn of Elizabeth’s reign. Fremantle handles the intriguing with aplomb and it’s impossible to read the books without feeling you are living events alongside the characters.
Kingdom by Robyn Young
(Hodder & Stoughton)
The last in Robyn Young’s remarkable Insurrection Trilogy about Robert the Bruce. If you haven’t read the first two you should. All three combine meticulous research with heart-thumping action charting Bruce’s bloody rise to power in Scotland and the defeat of the English at Bannockburn. William Wallace and Edward I, his son and heir Edward II and his lover Gaveston, all emerge as compelling characters as do Bruce’s wife, daughter and sisters captured and caged by the enraged English King. Each character is challenged and challenging in their own ways, and Young never glosses over the complexities of the characters and their actions, but rather binds them into the novel to create a deeply satisfying story. This it not the romantic Robert the Bruce of myth, but a medieval military leader of great skill; a complex and compromised man who develops into a king through the trilogy.
The King’s Sister by Anne O’Brien
The story of Elizabeth, sister to Henry IV, unfolds in this lush and gripping story. The novel opens as Elizabeth at seventeen is married to a boy of eight, but she soon finds herself caught up in a passionate relationship with Sir John Holland. Proving herself to be a determined woman and a skillful politician, she manages to get her marriage annulled and marries John, but as the fortunes of England shift and her brother returns from exile and claims the throne. Her husband is fiercely loyal to Richard II, so Elizabeth again finds herself at the centre of the storm as personal and political loyalties collide.
Blood and Steel by Harry Sidebottom
A historical novel from such an august scholar might be an intimidating prospect, but Sidebottom demonstrates once more that his ability as a story teller is equal to his academic stature. The prose is fluid and clean, building up a picture of the third century Roman Empire which feels full and rich, and does so with ease and authority. The book focuses tightly on a month in March 238 during the violent and unstable rule of Maximinus I, a man risen from the ranks and distrusted by the Roman elite. Occupied by wars in the north, the emperor is threatened by plotting in Rome and rebellion in North Africa. The action shifts across continents, and we see the action through the eyes of the richest and poorest of Rome. The fast pace doesn’t stop the characters emerging complex and varied. The novel is a thrilling, page-turning ride as brutal, brilliant and gory as the period it describes.
Imogen Robertson writes historical crime novels, the Westerman and Crowther and Paris Winter series. Her latest, Theft of Life is out now.