Saxon Heroines: A Northumbrian Novel (Women of Determination and Courage)

Written by Sandra Wagner-Wright
Review by J. Lynn Else

England, 7th century. Amidst a landscape of warring kings and shifting political alliances, four women will change the fate of Northumbria. As the landscape of pagan worship bleeds into Christianity, queens, princesses, and abbesses will influence kings and help unify the Northumbrian church in peace.

Everything is remarkably well-researched in terms of events, but the novel lacks a strong emotional core. While part one is focused on three different points of view (a queen, and princess, and a priest), part two is a patchwork of multiple narratives convoluting the plot. Additionally, the varied narratives shift so quickly that there isn’t time for building tension or emotional impact. By part three, the multitude of new characters makes it hard to keep up with names and relationships. A narrower focus is needed. The book is advertised as highlighting women who make a name for themselves and take control of their lives, but what they do isn’t shown. How are funds raised to care for the sick and help shelter women? What were the relationships between bishops and queens/princesses-turned-abbesses like? What were the differences of the Columban and Roman churches? What changed Hildeburg’s pagan heart to devote herself to Christianity? Within these questions lies the beating heart of a novel.

Saxon Heroines will appeal to readers who love discovering influential women from antiquity, and there’s a lot to enjoy. For me, the book needed stronger characterization, bringing to life people who learned, grew, and demonstrated their agency. Part one did a great job introducing us to these characters, but they became lost in subsequent pages. The stunning amount of research that went into this novel is easily felt—it reads like a documentary. Alas, not everything needs to be included to tell a compelling historical narrative if it ends up overshadowing the characters.