Every once in a while, I have to wait and let a review percolate. Helen Hollick’s historical fiction novel, The Forever Queen, has been one of those times. The Forever Queen is written on an epic scale and it is a challenge for a reviewer to write a review which reflects the depth and complexity of such novel.
One of the beautiful features of Kindle I just discovered is “Book Extras”. To demonstrate the enormity of The Forever Queen, there is a cast of 57 characters and 54 locales. Helen’s wide-ranging novel tells the story of tumultuous times in England from 1002 to 1042 from several points of view, but always returns to the feature character: Emma. While much of the novel is located in various areas of England, Denmark, Norway and Sweden play a significant part, with France and Bruges to a lesser extent.
In April, 1002, 13 year old Emma of Burgundy is wed to King AEthelred, 43, by her brother, Duke Richard of Burgundy. It is a marriage of alliance, mostly in Richard’s favor. On the English side of the coin, there is hope the marriage will deter i-viking raids by Northmen in search of England’s wealth. This quest for wealth most often leaves behind bodies and destroyed homes. Whether Emma is agreeable to the marriage matters to no one, except herself.
Even though Richard is perfectly willing to marry Emma to AEthelred, he has no desire to be in the man’s company given the rumor AEthelred had a hand in the murder of his older brother at a young age. His brother’s death gained him England’s crown.
Emma, who suffers dreadfully from seasickness all her life and regards voyages as journeys less favorably than death, now resides in a country where she does not know the language or customs married to a man she instantly dislikes upon sight. Woman’s intuition proves correct; AEthelred is a bully and a coward. He mistreats his Queen with violence and rules England ineffectually. His brother’s murder haunts him all his life, reducing him to an emotional disaster at times.
In England, the custom of the time permitted what was known as a “hand-fast marriage”. These marriages were not sanctioned by the Church and could be set aside should one party, usually the man, decide to officially wed another. AEthelred was hand-fasted to a woman, AElfgifu, who bore him several sons. As Queen, should Emma bear sons, her sons would have precedence over AElfgifu’s sons as AEthlings (which means “king worthy”). AElfgifu 2 oldest sons, Athelstan and Edmund, consider themselves AEthlings and a son of AEthelred and Emma constitutes a threat to their status. Any son of a King could become a successor king if elected by the Council.
Emma does bear 2 sons and 1 daughter to AEth1elred, conceived in violence, which causes her to despise her eldest son, Edward in particular, with her younger son, Alfred, faring slightly better. Her daughter, Goda, she refuses to feel affection for as one day she will marry and Emma will likely never see her again.
Emma is a complex woman, but one consistent aspect of her personality is her burning desire to rule England as Queen.
“Damaged people,” she said, “are dangerous, for we have already drowned in the darkness and we know that if we kick strong enough we can survive.”
The above statement is made in reference to her hated husband, AEthelred, just prior to reminding him his mother had deposed one king so she could rule through her son.
The Danes pose an ever growing threat to England. During fair weather, the Danes journey further and further into England on their murderous forays. AEthelred, in a paranoid state, orders all Danes residing in England be executed, down the last child. That day has become known as the infamous St. Brice’s Day. Retaliation by the Danes is inevitable.
As testament to Helen’s insightful prose, 70 people highlighted the following advice given to a young Danish Cnut by an older man:
“There is the type of woman you love for your need and the type you need because of your love. The two are not the same, and only the fortunate manage to find the second. Most of us have to make do with the first.”
Little does the 16 year old Cnut know at the time, how true this advice is and how largely it would figure in his own life, with not particularly peaceful consequences, when he eventually marries.
With numerous sons of kings, plus extremely ambitious men with no legitimate claims, vying for the Throne of England, the people of England will enjoy prosperous times, live in poverty, fear for their lives, as political and physical battles are fought, treachery is the norm and loyalty an almost non-existent commodity. Many Kings of England during this time did not reign for long periods. During all of the uncertainty, losses and danger in her life, Emma must conspire, collude and manipulate, if she is to keep her Crown.
There are times in the novel when Emma is to be admired, respected and, yes, disliked. She is an imperfect woman who adopted England as her country with a fierce sense of possession.
It is with unreserved pleasure, I award Helen Hollick’s The Forever Queen a resounding:
MY RATING: 5/5 Stars
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