Monday, June 9, 2014

Book review: Edwin: High King of Britain by Edoardo Albert

Edwin: High King of Britain by Edoardo Albert is not the first historical novel focusing on this king from the first half of the seventh century. From the late 19th century, there is The Paladins of Edwin the Great by Clements Markham. More recent works include Flight of the Sparrow by Fay Sampson and the Bretwalda: The Story of Outlaw Prince Edwin trilogy by David Burks, but Albert’s contribution is the first recent work to draw the attention of a major press.

Albert is faithful to history as recounted by Bede and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, but his words breathe life into the ancient chronicles. Edwin, his older sons, and his advisors come across as very real characters with strengths and weaknesses. Albert depicts a harsh world in which kings are under pressure to engage in – and win – battles so as to provide activities and loot for their war bands. Being a king was a brutal calling, in which few lived long enough to see grey hairs on their royal heads.

Albert’s prose is simple, with just enough descriptions to set the scene and allow his well-developed characters to shine. The seventh century feels authentic as you read Edwin. Of course, there are many things we simply don’t know about life in the early seventh century, but Albert makes reasonable choices about details that remain unknown. There was only one area where I spotted a clear bending of time, when Æthelburh asks Paulinus if gifts have come from her mother or grandmother. At this time, both Bertha and Ingoberg would have been dead many years.

In addition to portraying several major battles, Albert also tells an important part of the story of the re-conversion of England to Christianity. Edwin is shown as a careful man who takes his time in deciding whether to convert. He asks many thoughtful questions and ponders the effects on those he governs. His choice is ultimately based mainly on who will provide more success on the battlefield – God, or the gods? This pragmatic approach was likely typical of this stage in history. Once the choice was made, Edwin was faithful to his decision.

If you have already read Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, you know more or less how the main outline of the story will end. But even with this knowledge, Edwin was an engaging and exciting read and I am looking forward to the next volume in the series. I recommend reading Edwin along with Hild by Nicola Griffith. Hild was Edwin’s niece and was not even mentioned in Albert’s book, which mainly focuses on life from the male perspective. Girffith’s Hild shows us the female perspective on early seventh century life.

I received this book from Netgalley in exchange for a fair review.

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