Book Review – Alvar the Kingmaker

Writers often say you shouldn’t read other writer’s books about “your” period, as it will influence your own writing. Perhaps I’m not a proper writer yet, but when this book came out, I had to read it.

I had already bought the first book by Annie Whitehead, “To Be A Queen” about Aethelflaed, the daughter of Alfred the Great, but haven’t yet got around to reading it. My list of books to read gets longer as every day passes.

Alvar the Kingmaker, coverThis book though, “Alvar the Kingmaker”, was about people I am writing about. Alvar, or Elfhere as I know him (Ælfhere as he should be), was Ealdorman (or Earl) of Mercia. He was a contemporary of “my” Byrhtnoth. I was interested to find out how Byrhtnoth was seen by another writer. To my disappointment (or perhaps relief) Byrhtnoth wasn’t mentioned at all. Perhaps he was not needed to tell this story.

The author has made an interesting decision about names, using more modern alternatives, nicknames or titles.  I can understand why. If you are new to the Anglo-Saxon period, names can get a bit confusing. For example the Half-king and his sons, Elwood, Brandon and Thetford are easier to keep track of than Æthelstan, Æthelwold, Æthelwine, and Ælfwold (another son Æthelsige is omitted from the story!). If you already know the names, it becomes more complicated. Not that I’m familiar with these names, but I might be if I get to a second book about Byrhtnoth – I’ve only got to the year 946 so far. It’s something I’ll have to think about.

The book starts in 956, at the coronation of King Edwy, called Fairchild. Alvar is awarded his earldom by the king, but changes his allegiance to Edwy’s brother, Edgar. This betrayal, as he sees it, changes Alvar’s life forever. He will serve his country, whoever is King, for the rest of his life.

Alvar is so busy defending Mercia that he can never find the time to marry, or perhaps it is because he loves two different women. Both are unavailable to him. One is powerful, dark and sexy, the other provincial, fair and shy. Will he ever find happiness with either of them?

Alvar was a powerful man, politically and militarily, but in this book he is rarely seen doing anything. The book shows him arriving home from some fight in the North or Wales, or having to rush off to deal with a crisis. The King never listens to him and most of the time Alver is outmanoeuvred by (Saint) Dunstan and other churchmen. Probably this is true historically, but it doesn’t make for an exciting read.

If you want a well written, well researched book about life in the second half of the 10th century, this is the book for you. I learned a lot from reading it.

I’m afraid I prefer something with a bit more action. Something that keeps you up in the early hours, turning the pages, to find out what happens.

Finally: I noticed one minor error. At one point Alvar is returning from the Vale of York to his home.
” The route would eventually take them down the old Foss Way, bearing south until Alvar could link up with another great road cut by the Romans, following Watling Street to the west to get back to his own house in Gloucestershire.”
I usually take the Foss Way south to the Cotswolds – if Alvar went north on Watling Street, he was taking a (very) long way home!