A king struggles to rule with authority in Oak’s (Anna’s Awakening, 2011, etc.) historical novel.
History remembers Charlemagne as an eighth-century Christian ruler who united Western Europe and carried the titles of King of the Franks and Holy Roman Emperor. According to Oak’s novel, he was also a man at the mercy of the women in his life. Charlemagne’s first marriage falls apart thanks in no small part to his strong-willed, meddling mother. As he battles his guilt over the situation, he realizes that he may be freed up to marry the lovely, intelligent, and kind Hildegard. Yet his mother, in a move of political expediency, has already arranged for him to marry Desiderata, the Princess of Lombardy. Neither Charlemagne nor his brother Carloman trust the proposed alliance, as the King of Lombardy is hungry for power. Yet Charlemagne allows the wedding to proceed, breaking Hildegard’s heart. Predictably, bad things soon happen. Carloman is poisoned and his widow flees to Lombardy, and the marriage between Charlemagne and Desiderata is indeed miserable. The pope is also unhappy about the new wedding, while poor Hildegard pines away for Charlemagne and bemoans his lack of true leadership. Oak’s novel hews to the historical facts of Charlemagne’s life but imagines the details of his personal relationships. She includes several intriguing plotlines; the opening scene involving murderous bandits is compelling, and moments depicting the complicated relationship between church and state (and particularly between Charlemagne and the pope) are promising. Unfortunately, they’re relegated to the background, as Oak dedicates far too much space to the king’s relationships with his mother and Hildegard. In the many scenes depicting Charlemagne’s struggles with the overbearing queen mother, she’s said to be a “master of deceit,” while he’s the “world’s biggest fool.” When he’s not consumed by his annoyance with his mother, Charlemagne moons over Hildegard, behaving more like an angst-filled teenager than a great ruler with a kingdom to worry about. When he laments, “Must I always be punished or in pain, lose the people I need,” before he wraps his arms around himself, he’s not exactly the picture of inspiration. A cliffhanger ending teases a second installment.
A slow-paced tale, but hopefully its sequel will pack in a little more action.