Folks who think the political discourse is fraught right now might take a time machine back to the 11th-century British Isles. Everyone—the Gaels, the Normans, the Saxons and other little tribes—was at war, with towns pillaged and burned, farmland sown with salt, and women, children and the elderly force-marched to the lands of their conquerors and sold into slavery (if they were lucky). This is the backdrop for Susan Fraser King’s absorbing historical novel, Queen Hereafter, which imagines the life of Queen Margaret.
Margaret, the Hungarian-born Saxon/Scottish saint, was a refugee herself, thanks to the chaos surrounding the Saxon revolt and the Battle of Hastings. After enduring a miserable sea passage from the continent, she and her mother and sister wash up in Scotland, and are taken in as guests/hostages of King Malcolm II. He’s sort of on the side of the Saxons, whose leader is the very young and uncrowned Edgar, Margaret’s younger brother. In due time Malcolm marries Margaret in what is largely a political deal. He also insists on having Princess Eva from north Scotland as another guest/hostage, the better to rein in her ambitious grandmother, known to us as Lady Macbeth. Malcolm, by the way, killed not only Macbeth but his stepson Lulach, Eva’s father. She’s not as happy to be in the King’s redoubt as she could be.
Yet Eva and the Queen form a friendship. They’re both royal, and the spirited Eva is also a bard whose singing and harp music soothe the gentle, often lonely but deeply pious Queen. But Eva is also a spy for her grandmother, and she’s torn in her loyalties.
Fraser King is good at depicting the particulars of life in this savage time, though much of the savagery is kept in the background. She describes the linens, silks and wool worn by the royal ladies. The food is often coarse and plain, even at the royal table. People drink ale and wine instead of water, which may be contaminated. Her characters draw the reader in, though the devout Margaret can come across as a bit wispy. Fraser King’s Malcolm is not the pious and virginal boy of Shakespeare’s Scottish play. He begins as a ruffian who allows himself to be civilized, but not overmuch, by the wife for whom he cares and who does her duty by bearing him sons—lots of them.
Gracefully and tastefully written, Queen Hereafter gives the reader a glimpse into life as it could have been lived during a fairly obscure and turbulent time in world history.