I love to read and can get very attached to my opinions, but recently I've been learning not to completely lose my head when people disagree with me, so feel safe to argue with me whenever you wish ;)
This is a book that appeals to me for two tropes: the traveling bard, and the girl disguised as a boy. Not only that, a noble girl disguised as a boy, who eventually gets embroiled in a plot against her own uncle. Combined with the tension of trying to maintain a hidden identity, this deadline makes for a predictable climax, but one that I held my breath for nonetheless, because Tingle manages to strike that balance between setting up expectations, then delivering on them. It helps that the writing is designed to draw out the setting, and I had fun burying myself into the sensual imagery. There are stark differences between a miller's home on the river, the dirt road of a village, the dining hall of a lord, but all of it melds together into a very believable reproduction of the landscape of 10th century Britain, then divided into six kingdoms during this story of the granddaughter of Alfred the Great.
As always with historical fiction, it's the details I pay attention to, particularly the ones that mark the world as different from our own.
The story starts with the premise of an arranged marriage. Aelfwyn's bookish habits conflict with those of her mother, who has a reputation as a female warrior and a ruler of the kingdom of Mercia in her own right. I enjoyed this perspective, because unlike what many historical fiction authors would have you believe, not every girl who lived in history was inflamed with third-wave feminist ideals and itching to break down those stupid patriarchal barriers of the past. Contrary to that, Aelfwyn feels oppressed by the expectations placed on her to live up to her mother's accomplishments. However, there is still the pressure to submit to a society that treats women as material rewards. Aelfwyn's own parents' marriage was a political one, and when she is faced with the prospect of being given as a wife to one of her uncle King Edward's principal military allies, Aelfwyn balks. It's not until her mother dies, however, that the decision to run away is truly solidified.
(Btw, I don't count that as a spoiler, because it's part of the synopsis on the cover of my copy.)
This is the part where Tingle starts to take liberties with imagination.
In a moment of spirited rebellion, Aelfwyn looks to the past and realizes that her mother once had the same dreams of freedom.Before all her years of loyalty and obedience, before she became leader of Mercia, my mother had simply wanted to chose for herself what to do. She had remembered that, and she'd given me a horse.
When authors make up things to explain how a female character of the past gains the intellectual agency to give herself another option, I usually have trouble swallowing it. But drawing on the legacy of a mother? That's quite powerful, and indicates a fascinating connectedness between family members in a historical period usually stereotyped as oppressive.
This self-consistency permeates throughout the narrative, which really gives the story a sense of satisfying completion, even if it ends a little ambiguously.
One thing I especially enjoyed was the 1st person narration. It's the kind that's easy to cozy up with, and never spills into 3rd person with weird bits of exposition that Aelfwyn would never have known. I felt as if I was there with her all the time, as she sat in the library studying poetry, stood up for the first time to perform for her audience, bedded down on cold ground under the open sky. There's an immediacy to her perspective that makes it easy to believe that no one discovered her identity as a girl for the whole time she was disguised, even if this kind of story rarely holds up to scrutiny.
On a personal level, I thought Tingle managed to capture very well the dynamic between the performer and the audience, what kind of courage it takes and the mistakes that must be made first to successfully speak before people, the way one draws on their history to give emotional strength to the present performance. I substituted my own experience of playing the piano--nothing with the same stakes as Aelfwyn's situation mind you, but the same thought process is there, and I fall back on this story a lot when I need to remind myself of someone who struggled through the same things, but managed to give those struggles meaning just because she needed to.