10 September, 2014

The Tribute Bride, by Theresa Tomlinson. Book review



Acorn Digital Press, 2014. ISBN 978-1-909122-63-5. 261 pages.

The Tribute Bride is set at the beginning of the seventh century AD in Deira and Bernicia, the two kingdoms that later became Northumbria in what is now north-east England. The central character, Acha, is a historical figure, as are her husband Athelfrid, her father Aelle and brother Edwin, the Deiran chief priest Coifi and Athelfrid’s queen Bebba. Other main characters are fictional.

Disclosure: Seventh-century Britain is an area of particular interest to me, and my own novel Paths of Exile has the same setting and includes some of the same characters as The Tribute Bride. Theresa and I had several email discussions about the possible life and career of the historical Acha, who is recorded in just one line in Bede’s History. 

Acha is the daughter of Aelle, the ageing king of Deira, and has just reached marriageable age when severe flooding destroys most of the harvest. Aelle cannot pay the tribute of grain to his overlord, the fearsome Athelfrid of Bernicia, so he sends Acha instead. Athelfrid already has a queen, the magnificent Bebba of the Picts, but they have no living child and Athelfrid wants an heir for his ever-expanding empire. He accepts Acha as a secondary wife – officially married to Athelfrid, but not his queen – and soon she is pregnant with his child. But how will Bebba react to a younger, fertile rival? And does the ruthless and cunning Athelfrid plan to obtain more from Acha than a child?

I very much enjoyed Theresa Tomlinson’s mystery novels, Wolf Girl (for young adult readers) and A Swarming of Bees (for adults), both set in the Northumbrian royal abbey at Whitby. The Tribute Bride is set half a century earlier, when the later kingdom of Northumbria was still two separate kingdoms, each with its own dynasty. Acha’s life bridged both dynasties. What role she played in combining the two kingdoms (if any), is not known – which is what historical fiction is for. I summarised what is known about the historical Acha (not very much), in an earlier article Acha of Deira and Bernicia: daughter, sister, wife and mother of kings. So I was very pleased to see a novel devoted to her.

Considering that The Tribute Bride features murder, betrayal, war and massacre, it is a surprisingly gentle read. Most of it is told through the eyes of Acha, who is still only a girl at the beginning of the novel – mid-teens, I would guess – and has a sunny-natured tendency to think the best of people and to make the best of any situation. Her generous and open-hearted character helps her to find unexpected friendships in Bernicia, friendships that stand her in good stead in the long term. However, it also means that she is largely oblivious to the darker undercurrents of court life. Indeed, the older and wiser Bebba tries to warn Acha that Athelfrid is not nicknamed ‘The Trickster’ for nothing and that Acha should be wary of his intentions, but Acha does not understand the warning until it is too late. Even when the worst has happened, Acha’s determination to make the best of things probably contributes a lot to making the consequences of Athelfrid’s actions much less adverse than they might otherwise have been.

Peaceweaver brides like Acha, married to their families’ rivals and enemies, must have had to do a lot of smoothing down of conflicts if they were to be successful. This perhaps explains why The Tribute Bride was so much more placid than I had expected for a novel set at the heart of early medieval court life; the whole focus of the book is about defusing and preventing conflict.

Athelfrid’s historical nickname Flesaurs, usually translated as ‘The Twister’ or ‘The Artful’ is here rendered as ‘The Trickster’ and cleverly linked with the deceitful thief-god Loki. Whether the early English had an equivalent of the Norse god Loki is unknown, but equivalents of some of the Norse gods are recorded in Old English place names, so it seems not implausible that other characters from the Norse pantheon may also have had early English counterparts.

The main characters are all women – Acha herself, Bebba, the elderly midwife, Acha’s maids. I particularly liked the relationship between Acha and Bebba, which develops in an unexpected direction. The male characters tend to be secondary, even Athelfrid (perhaps because Acha at first does not know him very well and then later does not wish to). The preponderance of strong female characters was similar in Wolf Girl and A Swarming of Bees. It makes for a domestic focus, with plenty of detail of buildings, travel, food and textile crafts. The variety of languages, cultures and religions among the plethora of small kingdoms is well captured.

A map and glossary of place names at the front are useful to follow the geography, and a character list at the front may be helpful to readers unfamiliar with the period. An Author’s Note and reference list at the back outlines the underlying history and source material (I am flattered to see that I get a mention).

Gentle tale of kindness and friendships found in unexpected places, set against the background of early seventh-century Northumbria.

5 comments:

Rick said...

It must be a fascinating experience to read another author's take on this period, not a 'Top 40' historical era!

Is 'peaceweaver' a period term (or translation of)? In any case, what a wonderful expression!

Carla said...

Rick - in a way, although Theresa has previously written two novels set only a generation or two later, so I'm reasonably familiar with her take on the seventh century and it's not incompatible with mine, which is nice :-) We also talked quite a bit about Acha by email, so I had a sort of forewarning of some of the turns in the story.

Yes, the Old English word 'frithuwebbe' was a contemporary term applied to noblewomen who made dynastic marriages between families or kingdoms. The literal translation is 'peace weaver'. It's a lovely expression, as you say, and it also has more than one layer of meaning. Weaving in Old English had both the literal sense and a metaphorical sense of 'weaving' fate. So the peaceweaver bride was intended to take an active role to 'weave' the two kindreds together, and her success (or otherwise) would influence the fate of both.

Gabriele C. said...

Interesting tidbit, I didn't know the role of women in dynastic marriages was supposed to be an active one; though some would use the chance for sure.

Now I wonder even more about the role of Eadgyth in her marriage to Otto of Germany. Were there plans for closer dynastic relations?

Rick said...

True that since you've been in touch with the author, the setting and story are hardly out of the blue. Still rather enchanting, I'd think, to see another and rather compatible take on the period.

I give myself half a gold star for peaceweaver - I figured that 'peace' would be rendered with a Germanic root, something like 'frieda-, while 'weaver' was already of OE derivation.

Lovely term!

Carla said...

Gabriele - Kathleen Herbert's short book 'Peaceweavers and Shieldmaidens' is an interesting discussion, if you haven't already read it.

Rick - surely a whole gold star :-)