I loved this book. The end.
Before we get started, take a moment to admire that cover. So simple, but very powerful all the same. It's beautiful.
It took a long time for me to actually be able to read this one, and not because there was anything wrong with the writing, or my eyes. It is because sometimes technology is really stupid and makes life hard when it does not need to be.
In 2016 I read a collection of stories written to commemorate 1066, easily one of my most favorite (even though the outcome makes me so mad) periods. The book, 1066 Turned Upside Down, explores the various ways 1066 might have turned out differently, based on any number of variables. I loved it. It is still one of my favorite reads, because it contained such a variety of ways that England might have stayed Anglo-Saxon instead of becoming Norman (but then I remember we might not know who Eleanor of Aquitaine was, had 1066 gone differently, and it's all just very upsetting and confusing and I don't actually know what I would choose if I could have decided the battles myself). It was in this collection that I discovered the author, Annie Whitehead. I was very interested to find out in the following time that she was working on a book about Mercia, one of the kingdoms that existed prior to England becoming the country we know it as today.
I am absolutely enthralled by this early early 'England'. But due to the fact that education and writing wasn't exactly a big deal until my fave king Alfred came along, we have so little information to go on in any great details about these kingdoms - Wessex, Mercia, Northumbria, East Anglia, Essex, Sussex, and Kent. Sometimes what we do know of one kingdom comes to us from the viewpoint of the enemy, either being the conqueror or the conquered. Needless to say, I was pretty excited when the project came to my attention. I was even more excited to get an ARC of it from Amberley (seriously, so many fantastic titles, and tons of great sales. Can't be the $15 flat shipping rate to the US, either.)
But, then the problems began. I could only read the file from my laptop and this was problematic, as sitting at a computer, or sitting in general, for long periods of time is not great for my hip and knee. I love to read while I am exercising, so that was also another issue. It is not as though I could carry my laptop as I biked or walked. Philip from Amberley and I tried to make it work, he even tried sending the file directly to my Kindle and nothing worked. So, I kind of gave up on the idea of reading the book before everyone else and bragging about how good it was. I recommended it as a purchase for my public library and got my hands on it the very day it arrived for me.
Let me tell you, the wait was worth it, 100%. I loved this book.
There is always a danger when one writes about these people and places from long ago. With written records being somewhat sparse, history texts often get bogged down as basically just a list of names and dates and 'might haves' or 'probablys'.
Not so here, I am happy to report.
Whitehead has crafted a wonderful tapestry of words woven together to give the clearest possible picture we might get of this kingdom lost long ago. It is one of those books I wanted to climb inside and live in, just to be closer to the people and action. (If anyone ever invents a time machine, we all know which periods I will be taking trips to, right?)
The book begins with Penda, and is off and running from there. We are taken through the whole of Mercia's rise and fall as a powerful kingdom to be reckoned with. Whitehead uses all available sources to complete said tapestry, such as the work of Bede and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which those with an interest in the time will already be familiar with. The author uses multiple sources though, drawing on other chronicles, documents, and annals that have survived at least in partial form. Mercia too, happens to be one of those cases I mentioned previously, in that much of what we know about Mercia comes from her enemies, and thus was written about with bias. Whitehead does an incredible job of looking at the sources and guiding the reader through those biases for an honest look at some great and not-so-great kings - so many of whom are largely unknown today. The love the author has for her subject is clear in the research and time she must have devoted to tracking down every possible scrap of information. Often times when the contemporary sources seem to contradict one another, Whitehead offers explanations of why those conflicting stories occur, and what the likely truth might be - while remaining impartial herself.
This is a must-read for anyone interested in the time period. Highly, highly recommended.