Alvar the Kingmaker by Annie Whitehead
A B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree
Recipient of a Discovering Diamonds Special Award and
“My father told me that the lady of the Mercians was dead and gone before the days of the great Athelstan who was king even before Edgar’s father. Her daughter was shut away, and ever since there have only been West Saxon kings.”
So relates Káta to husband Helmstan, simultaneously telling part of a new story as well as filling in a bit the bridge between the days of King Alfred the Great and his daughter, and their now, here in Annie Whitehead’s second novel, Alvar the Kingmaker. Her debut, To Be A Queen, is Æthelflæd’s story of loyalty, identity, the determination to act upon what is right for self and one’s people, and how those people took her as their own and called her their lady.
Now, however, Mercia has been absorbed into the Wessex kingdom, and time has marched forward: new generations, new rivalries, new threads that loosely wend their way in to form new models of a society growing away from its past.
As a reader who had hungrily consumed Queen, I found myself greedy for this next book, even though I knew nearly half a century comes between the two eras, that Æthelflæd would not appear in it. Nevertheless, she does touch the story, as the Mercians, indeed the even more ancient Hwicce tribe, yearn for their centuries-old identity, past days and the rights enjoyed at that time.
Whitehead brings this to life as she introduces the warrior Alvar, who grows into his status as a statesman following a broken oath and crowning of a new king, the above-mentioned Edgar. Her tale brilliantly takes us through the years of Alvar’s close friendship with his deputy Helmstan, and the secret love he holds for the man’s wife. During these years he also must do battle with church leaders who play ungodly hardball, unafraid to bring harm to the innocent, who unwittingly wander into their sights, as they seek to destroy Alvar, seize his lands and render him irrelevant. When civil war erupts, he finds he must make his way past accusations of regicide and the future under a king whose weakness endangers the land against Danish military raids.
There is something unreal about witnessing the birth of Æthelred’s reign, knowing as we do about the choices he is to make that will link to future claims and pave the road toward the most important year in English history. Whitehead’s prose conveys these realities, though with a storytelling brilliance that captures my reader’s heart as well as the individuality of the people who actually lived this time. Utilizing historical details, the author weaves their tales, revealing their dimensions beyond mere residency, instead showing us what matters to them. Entwined within are the many ways people live and love, heartbreak that ensues and choices they make that on occasion affect many others.
Like vines creeping across brick walls, the moments within these lives intersect and influence the scenes and events of Alvar the Kingmaker, and Whitehead’s prose is as lyrical as we have come to expect it to be. Like poetry in bloom, flowering into a prose that flourishes across her pages, it subtly wends its way in ordinary moments as well as highlights passages in a fashion that causes one to stop and read it again—best aloud.
Káta partially closed her eyes against the sun, and looked through rainbow-lashes at the brightness. Away near the woods, the incessant triple hoot of the wood pigeon announced that full summer had arrived, while beyond the mill the rising laugh of the curlew marked the way to the estuary, but, beside them, the downward slope of the riverbank offered shelter from the breeze, and the loudest noise here was the gentle chatter of the water.
As the flowering poetry-prose makes its way among the pages, Whitehead carries us across the scene, visiting each small moment as we gracefully flit from point to point, exhilaratingly experiencing the beauty of the moment and the sweetness of summer as Káta encounters it as part of her world.
The author gives us glimpses and insight into much of Káta’s world, even parts of it she herself is not privy to, as we traverse time and geography to understand the linkage between the events within this time and as they will later relate to other important episodes. Alvar’s fealty to his king cannot prevent the direction of time’s march, however, and that surrealistic sensation of hovering above history, witnessing it unfold unleashes a flurry of questions and possibilities loosed by the winds of change that gust through the pages of the book, in the end reminiscent of Henry’s last leaf, clinging to the vine, an indicator of strength so long as it remains tethered to its host.
We know, for example, that Æthelred will later wed Emma of Normandy in attempt to pacify Viking raids with a unity between England and Normandy. Their son, the future King Edward the Confessor, however, will die childless, opening the way for a storm of claimants and the end of a dynasty. Is Edward the last leaf, the one torn from its root as the seasons inexorably must change? Or does his youth, largely spent in Normandy and perhaps laced with loyalty to his mother’s land, coincide with the timing as “[t]oo many things have come loose that cannot be tied together”?
Whitehead does not actually bring her story as far as Edward’s reign, though it is nearly impossible not to think about what the future beyond Alvar and Káta holds as they themselves live as part of the bridge between the days of Alfred and Edward. By their time, yes, Alfred’s daughter Æthelflæd is long dead and gone, her daughter’s fate not entirely certain. Nevertheless, she is their heritage as they will one day be someone else’s. Exactly how they get there remains to be seen, however, as Alvar rises in his position as a statesman and loves not only Káta, but also another.
The road that leads this other to him, like other events, helps determine history, but we also live through more personal trials with the characters, an omniscient narrator cleanly carrying us from perspective to perspective, smooth dialogue coursing through the pages like Káta’s water as its presence fertilizes and grows the life within its words. Whitehead also makes this sharper with her habit of assigning nicknames or slightly modernized versions of Anglo-Saxon names to her characters. Perhaps the best part is that the events are based on the lives of real people, and so as we think back to Káta’s moment in the sun excerpted above, it is difficult not to be awed by the author’s ability to transport us—really making us feel as if we are there—a thousand years back to a time that determines our own, and the people who made it all move.
A poignant, sometimes humorous, masterfully-told tale of the life of a man dedicated to his country, Alvar the Kingmaker is a must-read in the growing collection of an award-winning author whose name is solidly linked to quality historical fiction and enlightening Anglo-Saxon studies.
Stay tuned for some follow-up guest posting from multiple award-winning author Annie Whitehead.
About the author …
Annie Whitehead is a history graduate and prize-winning author. Her first novel, To Be A Queen, is the story of Æthelflæd, daughter of Alfred the Great, who came to be known as the Lady of the Mercians. It was long-listed for the Historical Novel Society’s Indie Book of the Year 2016, and it has been awarded a B.R.A.G. Gold Medallion and Chill With a Book Award.
Her new release, Alvar the Kingmaker, is a tale of intrigue, deceit, politics, love, and murder in tenth-century Mercia, and is available now. It charts the career of the earl who sacrificed personal happiness to secure the throne of England for King Edgar, and, later, Æthelred the Unready. Alvar the Kingmaker is also a recipient of the B.R.A.G. Medallion, Discovering Diamonds Special Ward and Chill with a Book Readers’ Award.
She has completed a third novel, also set in Mercia, and scheduled for publication in 2017. She has twice been a prizewinner in the Mail on Sunday Novel Writing competition, she won first prize for nonfiction in the new Writing Magazine Poetry and Prose competition, and she has had articles published in various magazines, on a wide range of topics. She is also an editor for the EHFA (English Historical Fiction Authors) blog.
Most recently, she has contributed to the anthology of short stories, 1066 Turned Upside Down, in which nine authors re-imagine the events of 1066, and which has just been awarded HNS Editors’ choice and long-listed for Book of the Year 2017. She lives in the English Lake District with her husband and has three grown-up ‘children’.
You can learn more about and follow author Annie Whitehead and her work at her website, blog, Twitter, Facebook and her Amazon author page. Click titles to purchase To Be A Queen, Alvar the Kingmaker and 1066: Turned Upside Down.
A copy of Alvar the Kingmaker was provided to the blogger in exchange for an honest review.