In this her middle book of the 1066 Trilogy, Helen Hollick picks up where she left off at the end of The Forever Queen. Emma of Normandy is aging and watches in growing sadness as her ineffectual son, who will become known to history as Edward the Confessor, flies in the face of everything she and her second husband Cnut worked so hard to build for England.
This book is not about Emma; it deals somewhat with the reign of Edward, but even he is not the author’s primary protagonist. The focus shifts to Emma’s and Cnut’s most trusted friend, Godwine, Earl of Wessex, and his family, particularly his son Harold. Their family, like Emma’s, is pulled right from the history books, and their story is the stuff of legend-believe me when I say it makes for some great reading in the hands of a good story-teller.
The plot is multi-veined, and with 1066 in the trilogy title, it is probably rather obvious that at some point in time William of Normandy is bound to show up. Now would be the time. One of the things that I very much appreciate about Helen Hollick is that she develops her characters from childhood, allowing the reader to see exactly how and why these historical figures evolve into the thinkers and enacters that they become. Her treatment of William is no different, and I was utterly captivated by his history-I disliked him thoroughly, but I must say he is one of the more fascinating historical personages I have ever read about.
There is very little that I can say about the plot without giving away everything, so I am simply going to say that the story shifts back and forth between England with her dying king (Edward) and rumbles as to who his successor is going to be, and Normandy, where William is consolidating his position as duke and shedding his vassalage to France. The 1066 invasion does happen at the end of this book. The events that occurred in England after the death of Edward were startling, and it is truly amazing just how close England came to 1066 being a year nobody would have remembered. I will drop one tantalizing hint and say that it was a treason of the most despicable kind-one act by one person who of all people should have been loyal.
As usual Helen Hollick puts in just enough period detail to give the reader a wonderful sense of “being there” in the Middle Ages with her characters. You can visualize their environments and clothing, smell and taste their food, etc. This book also delves into the practice of hand-fast wives, an accepted form of marriage in a time when a man might fall in love with a woman who was not of his social standing. These marriages were seen as valid and the children were not bastards; however, if the man had to marry for political reasons, say in the case of a nobleman, to marry for an alliance, his hand-fast wife could later be set aside, although this usually just meant living in a separate house. If he never had a son by his “Church blessed” marriage (hand-fast marriages were a pagan ceremony) then his hand-fast son could inherit.
Like the first book, Ms. Hollick closes this one out with a very lengthy author’s note detailing all of the twists and turns between fact and fiction in her tale. Of all the historical fiction writers that I read, she is absolutely the best at the end of book author’s note, and I always appreciate her efforts to set the record straight.
Readers often complain about the middle books in planned trilogies, but this one is definitely as strong as the first. Harold and the rest of Godwine’s clan are a riveting group of characters, and William of Normandy, while a despicable man in my estimation, sure makes for good reading. I definitely recommend this one to all who enjoyed the first book.