Old School Wednesdays is a weekly Book Smuggler feature. We came up with the idea towards the end of 2012, when both Ana and Thea were feeling exhausted from the never-ending inundation of New and Shiny (and often over-hyped) books. What better way to snap out of a reading fugue than to take a mini-vacation into the past?
Logo designed by the wonderful KMont
This week, Ana tackles a YA historical novel from 2001, The Edge on the Sword by Rebecca Tingle.
Author: Rebecca Tingle
Genre: Historical, Young Adult
Publication date: 2001
Paperback: 288 Pages
An adventure worthy of legend, for fans of Game of Thrones and Rangers Apprentice
When fifteen-year-old Æthelflæd is suddenly and reluctantly betrothed to an ally of her father, the king, her world will never be the same. For as a noblewoman in the late 800s, she will be expected to be meek and unlearned-and Flæd is anything but meek and unlearned. Her marriage will bring peace to her land, but while her royal blood makes her a valuable asset, she is also a vulnerable target. And when enemies attack, Flæd must draw upon her skills and fight to lead her people to safety and prove her worth as a princess-and as a warrior.
Standalone or series: Stand alone
How did I get this book: Bought
Format (e- or p-): Print
I’ve been thinking a lot about the aforelinked Kameron Hurley’s award-winning essay: despite a traditional, chosen narrative that constantly denies/erases/forgets this truth, women have always fought, have always been fighters, soldiers. Women have also always led.
Æthelflæd was the eldest child of Alfred the Great, king of England, [1. Although technically it was not the unified “England” as we know it.] Edward the Elder’s (another King of England) sister and the wife of Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians. Daughter, sister and wife are all part of her story but also:
The Lady of the Mercians: the de facto ruler of the Mercians after her husband’s death in 911 (and co-ruler before that). Learned scholar. Warrior who personally led successful battles against the Vikings. By all accounts then, a formidable military leader.
First published in 2001, The Edge on the Sword is a YA novel written by Rebecca Tingle, an Old English Literature scholar with a clear love and appreciation for her subject. Based on primary sources, the novel follows one year in the life of Æthelflæd. It examines, portrays, imagines, the surrounding, privileges, drawbacks and choices that a girl of 15 in her position – the daughter of a king, the promised wife of an important ally and ruler – would have.
And it’s super great – it’s a book that moves slowly, constructing its tale in a way that shows Æthelflæd living a full life. Not only being “a daughter”, “ a sister”, “a future wife” and a budding “warrior”. It’s about all of these at the same time. From personal and incredibly emotional connections to her father, mother, sisters and brother Edward (later a King and greatest ally) to the budding relationship with Red, a warder and mentor who teaches Flæd to fight and defend herself. Many times, I found myself reacting strongly to these relationships – they are disclosed with great care and thoughtfulness to the point where I was moved to tears at certain parts.
It’s also a coming of age story: Flæd is on the brink of becoming a woman, getting married, moving away from her family into unknown (and dangerous) territory to marry someone she hardly knows. The climax of the novel is based on real events chronicled by contemporary histories – the author here extrapolates from them into imagining that moment in which Flæd is confronted with more responsibility she thinks she can take on, to eventually relishing in having them, all to great effect.
As such, The Edge on the Sword is a book that feels extremely grounded to me: it’s doesn’t shy away from showing the complications of class divide within Anglo-Saxon society and the privilege Flæd had opposed to those of other social strata as well as slaves. I appreciated how the author was careful to include as part of Flæd’s education in the story, books and people that could have made an impact and influenced Æthelflæd ’s life and decisions. That a lot of them were also stories that featured other powerful historical women in similar positions only send us back to my first sentence. I also enjoyed how Flæd’s first instinct and action when arriving at the household of her future husband was to reach out to make connections and develop a friendship with another female character.
I really enjoyed reading this – in terms of writing, it might not be the Best Novel Ever Written but it is certainly enjoyable, engaging, emotional and interesting. It is, I think, a great companion to Nicola Griffith’s more recent Hild, another imagined retelling of yet another equally important and interesting woman in early English history.
Notable Quotes/Parts: No quotes or extracts BUT if you have any interest in learning about The Lady of the Mercians, I highly recommend the BBC’s recent three-part documentary about Alfred the Great – the second episode is dedicated to Æthelflæd.
Rating: 7 – Very Good
Reading Next: In Real Life by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang
Buy the Book:
(click on the links to purchase)