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The King's Shadow (1995)

by Elizabeth Alder

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4461041,136 (4.02)11
After he is orphaned and has his tongue cut out in a clash with the bullying sons of a Welsh noble, Evyn is sold as a slave and serves many masters, from the gracious Lady Swan Neck to the valiant Harold Godwinson, England's last Saxon king.

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00001594
  lcslibrarian | Aug 13, 2020 |
I wanted to enjoy this book, and I really thought I'd love it. I liked it very much when I read it twice as a preteen, even though I disliked Anglo-Saxon history. I thought I would love it upon rereading it ten years later, since now I'm someone who loves books that feature the Anglo-Saxon period along with Wales in the Dark Ages. I often enjoy books even more as an adult when I liked them, but didn't fully appreciate them, when I was younger. So my hopes for this book were high, since it seemed like exactly the sort of book I'd enjoy. It seems like such a compelling and fascinating story.

Alas, I was sorely disappointed! This book had so much potential to be amazing and compelling, but it failed in the execution.

I did love the history and Anglo-Saxon setting it portrayed, including the mention of one of my favorite things in history: the progression of England from Celtic to Roman to Anglo-Saxon to Norman, while each culture melded with the next as the land was successively conquered, with the Welsh remaining free. The book set up the history of England so well, and I was looking forward to watching the rest unfold in the last conquest.

But the book was just not well-written at all, so those good things weren't executed well enough to matter. I never made it to the Norman conquest, instead quitting only a third of the way through.

The book wasn't terrible, but it was definitely not an example of good writing, either - at least for me personally. There were many, many specific reasons why, all of which I noticed and considered and critiqued in my mind while reading. It wasn't just arbitrary dislike on my part, with no basis. Even a few of those reasons would be enough for a long review. I'm afraid that as hard as I try, any review I write will be colored by my disappointment - and will fail to be objective or pleasant. So I'll try to keep it briefer than my usual lengthy review, especially since I didn't like the book enough to pour my heart into a review.

*

What I Didn't Like:

- The descriptive writing style seemed amateur, as if the author was trying too hard. It was overly flowery and overly dramatic - and unnatural. I love vivid, quality descriptive writing, and wonderful metaphors, when the author writes them well, but I personally didn't feel that this book qualified. The author attempted this style I love so much, but I didn't feel she succeeded, much to my disappointment.
-When the descriptions weren't overdone, they were dry, lifeless, and shallow, with lengthy physical descriptions of character appearances, clothing, and buildings. This meant the narrative was often shallow and lacking in life and vividness.
- The protagonist's character arc was disjointed, inconsistent, unfocused, and all over the place. I didn't know what the main character wanted, what he feared, etc., since it wasn't clearly displayed, and since it kept changing arbitrarily. Also, the protagonist's anger at a relative was understandable, but it seemed unfounded because it began suddenly, without articulating a reason for it. And several pages later, the protagonist realized he had forgiven the other character - and I was so confused, because I didn't see that happen, and didn't know how it could have happened. Forgiveness doesn't happen that easily, especially for something so horrible that destroys one's life.
- The characterization and development of the other characters was one-dimensional and lacking, and it often made no sense. I also couldn't stand the protagonist's uncle, and I don't think that was the author's intent.
- Some events were far-fetched or made no sense. For instance, I wasn't aware of a plausible reason why the Lady Ealdgyth would show favoritism to a mute slave (the catalyst for most of the book), when the book kept saying how low the his status was. At least Harold had a reason to employ the protagonist - but even that depended on the Lady showing favor to him originally, which had no basis or believable cause, and which therefore undermined the whole plot. I didn't understand why both Harold and the Lady treated the protagonist as a page or squire despite his low status - there was not a believable reason for it.
- There were other inconsistencies as well, such as the book saying that hardly anyone had spoken to the main character in months - directly after a scene in which a fellow servant leans over to whisper information in his ear about the events happening in front of him. The latter seemed very contrived even while reading that scene, and I didn't understand why the other servant would bother to inform the main character, who had a much lower status. And then a couple of pages later, the book said that no one ever spoke to the main character, and it just seemed sloppy to me.
- There were problems with the point of view. Instead of being deep point of view, like I felt it should have been - narrating solely from the protagonist's perspective, allowing the reader to see only what he sees - the narration often told details that the protagonist couldn't know. For instance, the book described the protagonist's physical appearance, when he couldn't see himself, and alluded to things the other characters were thinking, that the main character couldn't know - both of which are tell-tale signs of problems with deep point of view. Also, the book included infodumps (a problem in itself) of historical events that the protagonist had no way of knowing. The book never got to the level of actual head-hopping, but it came pretty close in the way it described other characters' thoughts. And though it wasn't deep point of view, it wasn't omniscient point of view either - it was something in between that didn't succeed at any style of point of view that I'm aware of.
- The descriptions of the protagonist's feelings - understandably strong feelings - were melodramatic and over-the-top. I feel that it's better to err on the side of understatement when describing feelings, since subtlety is often incredibly powerful. As it was, I didn't care about the main character as much as I wished to, and I didn't connect with him, which hardly ever happens to me - I normally care so much, especially when a character goes through something this awful. I eventually stopped caring when he went through yet another hardship, even though I'm an empathetic soul almost all the time - just because it wasn't well-written enough to convey the emotion and hardship of the dramatic event, and to make me feel it too. I tried so hard to care, but the book had to meet me halfway, and it didn't.

*

Because of these things, I didn't enjoy the book nearly at all. I struggled to keep reading it, and I had to force myself to keep going - until I eventually gave up and DNF-ed, even though I held out for a very long time. It's not healthy for me when battling a reading slump to fight through a book I'm not enjoying. I only managed to read a page or two every few days, when I could normally finish a book this length in four days (or one day, when I was younger). I really hate to DNF books, and I always hesitate to do so - but sometimes that's what's needed, so I'm trying to put books down when necessary. I managed to get through the first hundred pages - only a third of the book - but it felt like an eternity, and I couldn't believe I wasn't even halfway through. I really wanted to know what happened in the rest of the book, but I couldn't bring myself to finish. I stuck with it a very long time to see if it improved, but it didn't improve much, and the problems remained, so I'll have to just assume the rest didn't improve much, either - I gave it a good chance.

I really wish I could find more good Anglo-Saxon historical fiction books. I've read a dozen or so, but while some are pretty good, most are not the greatest, and the only amazing ones I've read are only partly Anglo-Saxon. I've been craving more Anglo-Saxon recommendations for a long time, and I thought this book would help, but it didn't. The lack of more good Anglo-Saxon fiction makes me really sad, cause I love it so much.

All in all, I'm really sad and disappointed that this book didn't live up to my moderate hopes - nobody's fault but my own. Usually when I have good memories of liking a book, I like it even more as an adult, and I trusted that to be true here - but it wasn't. I almost wish now that I had left it without rereading it, so I would still remember it as a good book - but I couldn't help but recall the book and want to reread it, which would have happened eventually, regardless.

I thought that this book would remain at four stars or possibly even reach five stars upon a reread, but instead, it dropped at least a star or two to two or three stars. However, I'll leave it unrated, since I didn't finish it.

I hope others enjoy it much more than I did, and I can definitely see it being an enjoyable book for others. It just wasn't for me.
  Aerelien | Mar 23, 2020 |
Wonderful book. You must read it. ( )
  RBeene | Mar 20, 2015 |
I read this years ago and loved it. Not sure if I'd enjoy it as much as an adult, but I remember it fondly. ( )
  Athenable | Jan 10, 2014 |
Evyn dreams of being a storyteller, back in a time before libraries and common knowledge of the written word the best way to hear a tale was for someone to orally present it and Evyn is very talented at this oral tradition. However, his dreams are shattered when his father is murdered and his own tongue is cut from his mouth to prevent him from telling who did the murderers were. His own uncle sells him into slavery and when the lover of an influential man takes pity on him, Evyn begins a journey with Earl Harold of Wessex the future King of England. The boy chronicles their journeys together learning to read, write, and communicate without his voice.

Evyn gains a family and a man he can look up to as a mentor but not all things are meant to last and not all stories end happily. This book has copious amounts of history that could have been. Historical fiction has always been a draw for me and anyone who is a fan of the genre should pick up this book. ( )
  Markesh | Nov 27, 2011 |
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Thunder rumbled in the distance like the growl of angry wolves.
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After he is orphaned and has his tongue cut out in a clash with the bullying sons of a Welsh noble, Evyn is sold as a slave and serves many masters, from the gracious Lady Swan Neck to the valiant Harold Godwinson, England's last Saxon king.

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