Bottom line: Highly recommended for public library collections in a smallish-medium sized library and up. Will appeal to Philippa Gregory fans.
I love history, especially English history, but I might be about at my limit of what I can read about the Tudor period. (And I've cheerfully devoured pretty much everything.) Lately I've found myself drawn to older and older history. There's an amazing television series The Monarchy narrated by David Starkey; it streams on Netflix, go watch it. When the new work by Patricia Bracewell focusing on Emma of Normandy came into the library, I swooped it up.
This work is the first of a planned trilogy on Emma of Normandy and begins with her arrival in 1002 to become the second wife of the aged King of England. From there history and imagination are interwoven skillfully by Bracewell. I'm an author's note buff and so about 1/3rd of the way through the book read the full author's note. I love knowing what I'm reading is true and what is story.
What is historical fact and what is not matters little in this story because the characters are believable and true to the time (or true to what I imagine people in the Dark Ages were like). Do you love a good villain? Elgiva is appropriately ruthless and scheming but when we spend chapters told from her perspective we can also see her desires, frustrations, and humanity. Nor is our heroine Emma perfectly saintly.
Complex characters play out their theater in an intricately drawn setting. While the technology of the Dark Ages might have been simpler, their politics and lives were not. This book lacks the long, detailed, painstaking researched descriptions of the mundane artifacts of antiquity that other historical fiction authors seem to revel in. No where is there a multiparagraph description of the types, uses, making and wearing of clothing for example. But there was enough detail to put us firmly in the setting without drowning the reader in the proof of their research. (Jean Auel I'm looking at you.) For me, and I suspect for many readers who classify themselves as casual history nerds, it was the perfect balance of historical setting detail, character development and action.
No book is perfect, and I do have a few complaints. I felt the storyline with the king's eldest son was rushed and I never entirely bought it. I'm never sure about how I feel with including magic/mysticism/a seer into the books. (And Philippa Gregory does that too.) I know that in barely-Christian Dark Ages Britain that was a part of life, but in fiction it is too often used as a tool for the author to tell not just a prediction but a completely accurate historical truth. And that is a little too easy. But overall this is a very good book. My primary complaint is that I can not determine when the second book will be released.