The legend of Roderick the Beardless—the ninth-century hero who was in fact a heroine—is given fictional form in Holland’s lively and entertaining 23rd novel.
Protagonist Ragny, daughter of Spain’s Queen Ingunn, flees following her mother’s death from the heavy-breathing clutches of Ingunn’s oafish consort Markold the Grim. Donning male garb and adopting the name Roderick, Ragny and her companion-in-arms Seffrid (Markold’s former “sergeant”) journey to the neighboring kingdom of Francia (ruled by Charlemagne’s grandson, the “slipshod little King” Charles), and help defend it from marauding “Northmen.” Having proven “himself” a mighty warrior, Roderick is given the hand of the king’s unwilling daughter Alpaida—and the inevitable revelation of Ragny’s true identity sends her to prison and a sentence of trial by fire to determine whether she is—as the suggestible Charles fears—a shape-shifting witch. The story’s resolution, accomplished through the agency of what may indeed be supernatural means, fittingly crowns Ragny’s adventures, and ends—as any legend worth its salt must—with a hard-won restoration of order. Holland (An Ordinary Woman, 1999, etc.) is a real master of historical fiction. She writes crisp, swift sentences, offers intensely sensory visualizations (e.g., “The trail began to drop away under them, so that his horse leaned back and slid stiff-legged with each step on the hard rock”), constructs vivid action scenes, and judiciously mingles her characters’ introspective moments with the surrounding drama—stumbling only by employing King Charles reminiscences a bit too overtly as exposition, and with occasionally supercharged rhetoric (as when Ragny and Leovild, the courageous knight who wins her, meet in a climactic embrace: “Her mouth was like the rose, and he the bee”).
A rousing good read, nevertheless, and a welcome addition to a quite considerable (and really rather underrated) body of work.