Set in the 600s AD in what would some day be called England, the various small kingdoms jokey for supremacy. We enter the story with Edwin, who is a grown man with a deceased wife and two sons. He has also lost his father and his kingdom to the never ceasing political intrigues and warring kingdoms. This time and place is undergoing change. The Anglo-Saxons hold to the old ways, in language, politics, and religion, while the Britons are introducing ideas, language, and religion from the European continent. As you might guess, the culture clashes this causes adds to the grief and consternation of many of our characters, and makes for a riveting story.
The story is well-paced, keeping the reader engaged and moving the story forward without shorting the reader on plot or character development. As Edwin struggles to gain rulership and then hold it, he has to pay price after price. Some of those prices haunt him in the ghosts of the deceased. I really enjoyed the historical aspects of this book: travel by sea was often safer and quicker; having a private room was a luxury reserved for the ruler of the hall and his lady; a war between two kingdoms could have been as little as 100 men (the total of the trained, fighting forces of both factions). Life was gritty, hard, and for many, way too short.
The religious aspect was presented in context, the author showing the mistrust and misunderstanding inherent on both sides. Since each side claims to speak for some supreme being(s), and each side has their rituals (often viewed as magic or casting curses by the other), there were often misunderstandings and sometimes outright competition for supremacy. Edwin, in his rulership, has to learn to walk a fine line trying to keep all happy and from killing each other.
Now here comes my one criticism. The women are few and far between. They occasionally play some pivotal point, but those scenes were sometimes cut short. For instance, Edwin must take a second wife and she suggests he allow her to sit in on his council meetings. He grants her this, even allows her to speak, but before we get to hear her persuasive words, the scene cuts to the hall singer. Once we return to the council, the decision has been made and the meeting is breaking up. The women have limited roles in this book, so I would have liked to see those roles flushed out and made whole in living color.
Even with that one fault, I often found myself staying up way too late reading this book. It’s engaging, educational, gripping at times. Many of the characters are neither good nor bad, all of them being heroes in their own minds, and all of them doing some harm to another. I like my characters like that as I find myself able to connect with nearly all of them at some point throughout the book. This book is a worthy read and I look forward to the second in the series.