7 Rated Books Book Reviews

Old School Wednesdays: The Edge on the Sword by Rebecca Tingle

Old School Wednesdays is a weekly Book Smuggler feature. We came up with the idea towards the end of 2012, when both Ana and Thea were feeling exhausted from the never-ending inundation of New and Shiny (and often over-hyped) books. What better way to snap out of a reading fugue than to take a mini-vacation into the past?

Old School Wednesdays Final

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This week, Ana tackles a YA historical novel from 2001, The Edge on the Sword by Rebecca Tingle.

Edge of the SwordTitle: The Edge on the Sword

Author: Rebecca Tingle

Genre: Historical, Young Adult

Publisher: Speak
Publication date: 2001
Paperback: 288 Pages

An adventure worthy of legend, for fans of Game of Thrones and Rangers Apprentice

When fifteen-year-old Æthelflæd is suddenly and reluctantly betrothed to an ally of her father, the king, her world will never be the same. For as a noblewoman in the late 800s, she will be expected to be meek and unlearned-and Flæd is anything but meek and unlearned. Her marriage will bring peace to her land, but while her royal blood makes her a valuable asset, she is also a vulnerable target. And when enemies attack, Flæd must draw upon her skills and fight to lead her people to safety and prove her worth as a princess-and as a warrior.

Standalone or series: Stand alone

How did I get this book: Bought

Format (e- or p-): Print

Review:

We have always fought.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the aforelinked Kameron Hurley’s award-winning essay: despite a traditional, chosen narrative that constantly denies/erases/forgets this truth, women have always fought, have always been fighters, soldiers. Women have also always led.

Æthelflæd was the eldest child of Alfred the Great, king of England, 1 Edward the Elder’s (another King of England) sister and the wife of Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians. Daughter, sister and wife are all part of her story but also:

The Lady of the Mercians: the de facto ruler of the Mercians after her husband’s death in 911 (and co-ruler before that). Learned scholar. Warrior who personally led successful battles against the Vikings. By all accounts then, a formidable military leader.

First published in 2001, The Edge on the Sword is a YA novel written by Rebecca Tingle, an Old English Literature scholar with a clear love and appreciation for her subject. Based on primary sources, the novel follows one year in the life of Æthelflæd. It examines, portrays, imagines, the surrounding, privileges, drawbacks and choices that a girl of 15 in her position – the daughter of a king, the promised wife of an important ally and ruler – would have.

And it’s super great – it’s a book that moves slowly, constructing its tale in a way that shows Æthelflæd living a full life. Not only being “a daughter”, “ a sister”, “a future wife” and a budding “warrior”. It’s about all of these at the same time. From personal and incredibly emotional connections to her father, mother, sisters and brother Edward (later a King and greatest ally) to the budding relationship with Red, a warder and mentor who teaches Flæd to fight and defend herself. Many times, I found myself reacting strongly to these relationships – they are disclosed with great care and thoughtfulness to the point where I was moved to tears at certain parts.

It’s also a coming of age story: Flæd is on the brink of becoming a woman, getting married, moving away from her family into unknown (and dangerous) territory to marry someone she hardly knows. The climax of the novel is based on real events chronicled by contemporary histories – the author here extrapolates from them into imagining that moment in which Flæd is confronted with more responsibility she thinks she can take on, to eventually relishing in having them, all to great effect.

As such, The Edge on the Sword is a book that feels extremely grounded to me: it’s doesn’t shy away from showing the complications of class divide within Anglo-Saxon society and the privilege Flæd had opposed to those of other social strata as well as slaves. I appreciated how the author was careful to include as part of Flæd’s education in the story, books and people that could have made an impact and influenced Æthelflæd ’s life and decisions. That a lot of them were also stories that featured other powerful historical women in similar positions only send us back to my first sentence. I also enjoyed how Flæd’s first instinct and action when arriving at the household of her future husband was to reach out to make connections and develop a friendship with another female character.

I really enjoyed reading this – in terms of writing, it might not be the Best Novel Ever Written but it is certainly enjoyable, engaging, emotional and interesting. It is, I think, a great companion to Nicola Griffith’s more recent Hild, another imagined retelling of yet another equally important and interesting woman in early English history.

Notable Quotes/Parts: No quotes or extracts BUT if you have any interest in learning about The Lady of the Mercians, I highly recommend the BBC’s recent three-part documentary about Alfred the Great – the second episode is dedicated to Æthelflæd.

Rating: 7 – Very Good

Reading Next: In Real Life by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang

Buy the Book:

(click on the links to purchase)

Book Depository UK amazon_uk

  1. Although technically it was not the unified “England” as we know it.

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6 Comments

  • Brigid
    September 10, 2014 at 9:28 am

    I appreciated how the author was careful to include as part of Flæd’s education in the story, books and people that could have made an impact and influenced Æthelflæd ’s life and decisions.

    I love it when the author adds in important little details like this.

    How do you say her name…seriously. How do you say that?

  • hapax
    September 10, 2014 at 1:59 pm

    @Brigid — Ethel-fled. It’s not exact, but close enough.

    Having concentrated (in my academic other life) on researching Anglo-Saxon women, I approached this title with dread: I was sure there were going to be glaring anachronisms (in ways of thinking, if not details of worldbuilding) that were going to throw me out of the story. But Tingle’s writing is exemplary here; I *never* found a single jarring note.

    Unfortunately, I also thought her story-telling skills suffered for her meticulous attention to historical fidelity. AEthelflaed was nothing if not *dramatic* (even her own family apparently commented upon that, if they didn’t use such modern terminology). I didn’t feel that same vividness in this story; Flaed felt oddly restrained, even constricted, at least until the final section of the book.

    For that reason I *strongly* recommend the sort-of sequel, FARAWAY TRAVELER. It’s about Flaed’s daughter, AElfwyn; and while the telling is no less thoroughly grounded in historical accuracy, it’s as though the very lack of historical information on the character freed Tingle to tell a much more fluid and appealing story. (Not-really-spoiler: it’s one of the very few historical chicks-in-pants books that I have ever read that had convincing plausibility)

    Besides, the plot allows Tingle to weave tons of Anglo-Saxon alliterative poetry into the narrative, a genre that definitely deserves wider exposure.

  • Nancy
    September 10, 2014 at 2:20 pm

    Sounds like a great book. I’ll check it out. I also found the essay quite interesting and informative. Maybe what the world has always needed is more female historians and scribes, then perhaps our stories would not have been forgotten or dismissed. And perhaps we would be able to see the value in our strengths, abilities and contributions even when they aren’t displayed on the battlefields or in the throne room.

  • Amaryllis
    September 11, 2014 at 8:06 am

    I remember this book! And I’ve never found anyone else who’d read it– although I should have known that hapax would have.

    @hapax: can I ask if you’ve read “Hild”? And if so, what you thought of it?

    Anyway, I agree that the last section of the book was the strongest. It was a treat to watch Flaed grow into her own strength. And while her marriage to a man of her father’s age might not seem very romantic in the modern sense, Flaed wasn’t a modern. I liked the indications that their marriage would be a good working partnership and even a true friendship. Facing an unknown husband and trying to do her duty by his people might call for a different kind of courage than leading her men against bandits, but it was bravery nonetheless, and I like to think it was rewarded.

    And the “Chick-in-pants” sequel featured yet another kind of female strength,come to think of it.

  • Zahra
    September 12, 2014 at 5:48 pm

    Nice to see Tingle’s novel get some attention!

    Hild is amazing–one of my absolutely favorite books this year–but it’s not for everyone.

    Specifically, it’s not for readers who need a strong plot to make it through a 600-page book, or find consensual incest between characters of similar age and social power triggering.

    But if you, like me, love immersive and accurate historical fiction, which makes you feel like you are actually in a different world; thoughtful and realistic depictions of active and powerful women of many types; stories that celebrate women’s sexual power but hold them accountable for using it to abuse others; complex and non-stereotypical depictions of female bisexuality; and early medieval Anglo-Saxon England, it’s sweet treat. (I also appreciated its thoughtful portrayal of slavery and very realistic look at gradual and politically-motivation conversions to Christianity. Also nice to see someone accurately depicting the historical reality of people who would today be considered black in Anglo-Saxon England.)

    Like all of Griffith’s books, it’s very much interested in seeing female power (including the ability to abuse others) as natural and both celebrating and exploring the darker aspects of that. In my experience, it’s a love-it or respect-but-hate-it book.

  • Katie Isaak
    February 26, 2015 at 2:51 pm

    It is actually not a stand-alone book, although it can be read as one. The second book is called Far Traveler and is about AEthelflaed’s daughter AElfwyn. I read these books about nine years ago when I was twelve years old. I loved them then and I still love them now and the characters of mother and daughter are an excellent contrast to each other.

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