THE BREATH OF KINGS by Gene Farrington
Kirkus Star

THE BREATH OF KINGS

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KIRKUS REVIEW

In the clangorous amphitheater tradition of Aztec: an extended spectacle featuring a giant cast of fancifully rendered and manipulated historical figures, from the Saxon-Dane-Norman muddle of 11th-century England and neighboring principalities. The period covers the reigns of four kings--from Ethelred (the Unready) to Edward (the Confessor), from 1012 to 1066 . . . when Norman William buckets across the channel to unseat the briefly reigning Harold Godwinsson. Farrington's Ethelred is a lout, thoroughly hated by his lusty Norman queen Emma, who also detests the ""brats"" he gave her, including timid little Edward--who'll become infatuated with both kingship and sainthood. And the situation will be complicated by Earl Godwin, a shrewd, sane (compared with his betters), and ruthless advisor who sires both a queen and king--and whose family almost secures England for the Saxons. Thus, when Ethelred becomes, as Emma says, ""that dead Saxon pile of dung,"" Edward is sideswiped by Ethelred's bastard son Edmund; after Edmund's death, handsome, capable Cnute of Denmark is declared king by the Witan; by now Edward is having fits in Normandy; mother Emma (who tries to poison her trusting son) marries Cnute; and Godwin, a kind of circuit rider among the powerful, is visited one day on the way to York by three witches, who stress a daughter's queen-ship and his own powerful potential. Eventually, then, poor Edward winds up hiding in a cistern while Godwin sires pure, cold beauty Edith. And Edward, de-cisterned, will finally reach the throne, with Edith as his queen, despite Chute's heir Hathacnute (that ""abhorrent fat mass"") and Emma's murderous plotting. The 583 pages swirl with incident and sizzle with action both horrid and magical. Amid the clashes and atrocities, the dribbling and/or sloshing feasts, there are: mighty deaths; a veritable stream of prophesying hags; here and there a miracle--some performed by Edward, student of the seer Felim MacBorn; atmospheric seascapes; comic appearances (e.g., a female Viking Bigfoot who strides around naked); and some amusingly caustic repartee among the royal and clerical swine and saints. Readers who want scholarship--or refinement--will prefer Dunnett (above). For all others: zesty historical entertainment in a cocky modern idiom.

Pub Date: June 11th, 1982
Publisher: Doubleday