Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Alvar the Kingmaker by Annie Whitehead: a review by Diana Milne

Alvar the Kingmaker
Honoured with an Indie BRAG medallion and a Discovering Diamonds Special Award, this book has also been chosen as a Chill Books honouree and Book of the Month. “Ms Whitehead knows her stuff - A must-read for anyone interested in the early Anglo-Saxon period” – Helen Hollick.
"In 10th Century England, nobleman Alvar knows that securing the throne for the young and worthy King Edgar will brand him as an oath-breaker. As a fighting man, he is indispensable to the new sovereign, but his success and power gain him deadly, murderous enemies amongst those who seek favour with the king. Alvar must fight to protect his lands, and his position, and learn the subtle art of politics. He must also, as a man of principle, keep secret his love for the wife of his trusted deputy. Civil war erupts, and Alvar once again finds himself the only man capable of setting a new king upon the throne of England, an act which comes at great personal cost. His career began with a dishonourable deed to help a good king; now he must be loyal to a new king, Aethelred, whom he knows will be weak, and whose supporters have been accused of regicide. Can he bring about peace, reconcile with his enemies, and find personal happiness, whilst all the time doing his duty to his loved ones? And what of the fragile Queen, who not only depends upon him but has fallen in love with him?"

Transporting the reader straight into the heart and soul of pre-conquest England, Annie Whitehead's novel, Alvar the Kingmaker, is based on true events, beginning when one new king is caught in bed with both the new queen, and her mother, and ending with the violent death of another king.

The opening description of the revelry and festivities for the coronation of King Edwy, known throughout history as the Fairchild, are so well described as to make the reader feel part of the action, watching whilst Abbot Dunstan, one of the main characters has a shocking encounter with the fornicating king and family before meeting with the title character, Alvar.

Alvar is the pivotal character of the story, tactician, nobleman, friend, soldier, statesman and unrequited lover. Already, on the very day he was given his earldom, he is having serious doubts about his allegiance to to this king  and soon realises that his fealty would be better placed with Edwy's brother, Edgar. As Edgar says ... I do not know my brother overly well, but I think he has misunderstood what it means to be king. You cannot buy men’s loyalty, nor is it wise to think that you can earn their steadfastness...Whilst this is a wise decision by Alvar, he seems to spend his life making up for his betrayal of King Edwy and endorsement of his brother as his leader and eventual king, and selflessly puts himself second to this new allegiance throughout his life.  Alvar does not marry until very late in life, when he is handfasted, but throughout the book he loves two different and unattainable women. The love, particularly for the wife of his friend, Helmstan, is touching and beautifully described - they both know the boundaries and do not cross them, loving chastely and movingly, usually from a distance.

The book is fast paced and enriched with a wealth of historical detail, that is both interesting and adds greatly to the story line without overwhelming the human elements of the story. The reader feels drawn to the characters and gets to know them as if they were friends and neighbours, not people in a book, raising real emotions if someone on the page gets into trouble. Pastoral scenes are described so beautifully, that the reader can picture actual details and even believe they can hear the water or smell the flowers. The author exhibits a thorough knowledge of the way of life in the 10th century, of healing herbs and their uses, folk lore, the old gods and practices - now outlawed by the church - and the she has researched the actual lives of the historic characters in minute detail, showing her intense passion for this era.

Throughout the narrative, conversation is natural and in keeping with the character of the speaker. This conversation between Edgar and Alvar shows Ms Whitehead's clever use of conversation to not just enhance the story, but to move the narrative forward:
"Edgar said, “It looks as though we are here too late. I was keen to see the fight.” Alvar frowned. “Why?” Edgar stared at him, unblinking. “When a would-be king comes to ask a man for help, it is a good thing if he can witness how well he fights.” 
Alvar’s heart speeded up. Which should he contemplate first; the call for help, or the professed ambition to be king? The surprise must have been writ large on his face, for Edgar said, “I have come to ask you to help me win a kingdom and in return, I will see Mercia rich beyond dreams.” He leaned forward in his saddle. “You are well known as a slayer of the Welsh. I am fourteen now, old enough for a kingdom and I believe you are the best man to help me get it.” 
Alvar shook his head. Help to overthrow the king? He was no rebel. And why would this boy, whose foster-kin were the most formidable family in the land, need the aid of a newly appointed earl of Mercia? Edgar straightened up. “Lord Alvar, may I be forthright?” 
“I wish you would.” 
“My brother’s only interests are his wife and his riches, and he believes that Wessex is where the wealth is.” Alvar nodded, recalling how the Fairchild had argued with Dunstan over the redistribution of the late king’s bequests. Prince Edgar continued. “The lords tire of his ways. My foster-father put it to him that he should share his kingdom with me... '

The author made the decision to update the spelling of most of the names to avoid the confusion of so many people all beginning with Ae and being relatively unpronounceable. In this book, this adds greatly to the enjoyment of the tale, it is just sad that we don't know how the real  Alvar died. He was good advisor to Edgar, a good friend to Helmstan. Aelfhere (Alvar) of Mercia was known to the chroniclers as the "The blast of the mad wind from the Western territories" but also as "The glorious earl."

He deserves to have his story told.

You may buy the book from: Amazon UK  and Amazon Dot Com

Ⓒ Diana Milne February 2018


  1. Looks like Alvar is caught between a rock and a hard place, sounds like a great read

  2. I'm looking forward to this one!

  3. Barb Kurr-Joyce7 March 2018 at 16:36

    Awesome review, looks like another great read!!!

  4. Another amazing book by Annie Whitehead :) Cant wait to read it.

  5. Great stuff - I had just read about Eadwig and the incident involving his wife and mother i law. A turbulent period in history that makes Game of THrones seem like a kiddies picnic.