The story opens with the marriage of King Charles of Francia (later known as Charlemagne) and Fastrada, his fourth and much younger wife and sets out not only the relationship of characters to each other in a comprehensible way but also their attitudes to one another. So we learn that Fastrada is anxious about living up to Charles’ late queen. Pepin is jealous of his younger brother Karl, who is destined to be king after their father, but also fearful of the young Fastrada and the children she is likely to give Charles. He works toward diminishing her status but he can go only so far because he is but a boy of fourteen, only two years younger than his stepmother. However, as the story progresses, Pepin matures and his envy and ambition only grow.
It is unfortunate that stories revolving around queens, with a few exceptions, have them sitting in their palaces receiving news of action taking place elsewhere. Charles was involved in a lot of wars during this period, so the author loses the opportunity to involve the reader in the excitement because the action is dealt with in a sentence or two from a messenger or in a letter. This is also true of Fastrada.
Having said that, with Pepin around life in the palace wasn’t entirely dull. Pepin is one of the antagonists, but he is not an entirely evil character, which gives him dimensions. It is not difficult to sympathise with him because who wouldn’t be angry after being overlooked in favour of a younger brother just because of a physical deformity?
I often find reading an e-book with the list of characters at the front is frustrating. However, in this case and in spite of the unusual names, the author was so adept at identifying her characters in the narrative that beyond the first few pages I never had occasion to refer to that list.
This is an unfamiliar period of history to me and I enjoyed my first foray into it.
© Susan Appleyard
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