Over the next two or three weeks, I intend to review the seven books read in recent months. Some of these were on my list for my 2019 challenges, and all have counted towards my 2019 Goodreads Challenge.
First is a novel I won in a giveaway on the author’s website that I follow. As it is a thick book, I had some difficulty carrying it around in my old wheelchair. But over time, I found a solution and read the novel.
I Am the Chosen King
Original Title when published in the UK: Harold the King
In this beautifully crafted tale, Harold Godwinesson, the last Saxon King of England, is a respected, quick-witted man both vulnerable and strong, honorable and loving-and yet, in the end, only human. After the political turmoil and battles leading up to 1066, we all know William the Conquerer takes England. But Helen Hollick will have readers at the edge of their seats, hoping that just this once, for Harold, the story will have a different ending.
Review 5 stars
This beautifully written novel was well worth spending time reading. In summary, I loved all the details and characters. Although I already opposed the Normans, Helen Hollick turned me into a fan of Harold Godwinesson. But I’ve never liked William the Conqueror – even when I discovered the Normans had Norse ancestors. The novel felt well-researched.
On a superficial level and the one I learnt at school decades ago, the story is straightforward. But the reality and the twists, intrigues and rivalry as it unfolds is complex. Helen Hollick captures all the nuances and fills in history’s gaps convincingly.
The settings in England and Normandy evoked a sense of what the 11th century was possibly like. Some of the places I glimpsed from my own travels. For instance, London and its environs were very different and yet the descriptions triggered images and memories in my imagination. I lived for a few years near Waltham Abbey, so could picture it as it was.
One negative could be the portrayal of the original Britons – the Welsh. Were the Welsh worse than other peoples around that period? Ruling England is a tough job, but does it mean all one’s enemies are violent savages? Or is that my Welsh bias?
Anyways, the Godwinesson family take centre stage, led by Harold’s influential father, Earl Godwin. Early on there are indications that sibling rivalry is inevitable, and as the story unfolds it becomes more intense leading to the fatal actions of one brother, Tostig. How the role of other family members weaves into this is well-portrayed and justified.
Then there is royal intrigue. Again, inevitable given the characters, a reluctant King, his powerful mother – Emma, Queen and wife of the late Cnut the Great – and then Harold’s politically astute father. Emma, who is the protagonist of Hollick’s next book in the series, The Forever Queen – chronologically a prequel – is reluctant to let her son, Edward rule as if he’s weak. But this ‘confessor’ is distracted by spiritual matters – until he tastes power.
I’m not going to accuse the author of treating her characters as black and white as others have. They take sides and few of them waver. Even the despicable William has his moments of introspection. So, the characters felt realistic, reacting and creating events. Some lived dangerously, wanting what others had and failing – or in William’s case succeeding.
Emma must teach Harold’s ambitious sister Edith about her duties as Queen when she marries Edward, becoming the next Queen of England. And what does power do when petty sibling rivalry plays its role? Hollick weaves that rivalry into the historical facts, and the tale unfolds as it did in 1066. Fortunately, Harold’s hand-fast wife, Edith Swanneck rises above this rivalry, and their love endures even when he has to marry another in the eyes of the church – another relationship well-portrayed.
When Edward dies and Harold is chosen as the King of England, other claimants emerge inevitably. One is Duke William of Normandy. Historically he claimed both Edward and Harold had promised him the crown, but the records are questionable enough for the writer to expand on the facts and give Harold justification for accepting the crown himself.
Result – invasions north and south. The pace builds as the ending unfolds that most English know from school. So, we know what happens in this timeline. Tostig creates tension and trouble with his Norwegian allies. And as made clear in the scenes of him securing his dukedom, William never gives up. History can’t be changed.
Damn that Norman bastard.
The tension of those final days gripped me as I marched up and down England. Hollick had me praying for an English victory. ‘What if’ kept playing through her words. But this wasn’t the clever alternative history collection, 1066 Turned Upside Down which Hollick contributed to. This was the actual year 1066 but crafted brilliantly and enjoyably.
Story – five stars
Setting/World-building – five stars
Characters – five stars
Authenticity – five stars
Structure – five stars
Readability – five stars
Editing – five stars