The King’s Daughter

Written by Penny Ingham

The King’s Daughter begins in 877 AD while King Alfred the Great of Wessex is fighting Norse invaders. He is supported by his bright and beloved daughter, Elflaede; his immature and jealous son, Edward; and the ambitious, charming yet cruel King of the Mercians, Ethelred, who is betrothed to Elflaede. They are fighting the sons of Ivar of Rothbrock, Guthrum and Halfdan, who swore on their father’s deathbed to finish what he had started: to take Wessex; but in his childhood a witch had warned Guthrum to “Beware the green eyes”.

Elflaede, who has “huge green eyes”, is just seventeen when we first meet her, and she grows from an intelligent but naïve girl into a powerful woman. Her courage and the conflicts she faces are powerfully portrayed. While she has a number of implausibly lucky escapes, the difficulties of her emotional position throughout the book are convincing, so that I felt real admiration and empathy.

The most successful characters are the ones that are the least complicated: for example, the monstrous Halfdan, benevolent Alfred and conniving Ethelred. Guthrum and Edward are more complex and so require more work from both the author and the reader. Overall, though, I think they work.

The book brought Anglo-Saxon Wessex to life, particularly the relentless toil required to produce food, the brutality of fighting and the plight of women, especially the constant threat and use of rape as a tool of war. I enjoyed the descriptions of the varying landscapes, from the damp hidden island of Athelney to smelly, commercial London to verdant and sunny Bedford.

I wasn’t keen on the cover (why is an Anglo-Saxon princess wearing bright red lipstick?) and I thought the blurb gave too much away, but otherwise I thought this was a pacy, engaging, enlightening and hugely enjoyable novel.