Alvar the Kingmaker
Whitehead takes a period of history that is not over-represented, 955-983 AD, creating an historical adventure that has drama, some pathos and a variety of interesting characters. She takes as her hero not a king but an earl, whom she calls Alvar. He has recently been given this title as result of swearing allegiance to the young king, Edwy. He is seen as a fawning upstart and soon realises that he has bought his privilege too dearly, but he has the potential for worthier characteristics.
One thread of the novel follows the development of the relationship between Abbot Dunstan and Alvar. From a mutual dislike of each other’s roles, through events where they take opposing views, further events make them come to appreciate and respect each other. The four years during which Edwy reigns are disastrous. It is no tragedy when he is assassinated and the throne goes to the good brother, Edward. A peaceful reign ensues. Dunstan is made Archbishop of Canterbury, his religious reforms matching the educational steps Edward takes.
Alvar is closely associated with both kings. Young, but mature and trusty, he helps protect, support and guide them and soon regards himself as a kingmaker. The novel develops his character along with the narrative. He does not have an easy ride. In love and respect he has to bide his time.
The conflicts between different factions and rival individuals surrounding Alvar’s life are convincing. They keep the drama flowing, and the women in the novel are nicely drawn, fulfilling the lifestyle expected of females at that time yet showing their individual personalities. They also have key parts in the action; Kata, for instance, the love of Alvar’s life, is depicted as quiet yet emotionally strong and open-minded.
Whitehead has furnished her scenes with historical detail, which on occasion is slightly intrusive, for example, being informed of a contextual fact. Otherwise, it is atmospheric, bringing the reader a good sense of the period, and is an easy and enjoyable read.