January 1067. Charismatic bishop Odo of Bayeux decides to commission a wall hanging, on a scale never seen before, to celebrate his role in the conquest of Britain by his brother, William, Duke of Normandy. What he cannot anticipate is how utterly this will change his life - even more than the invasion itself.
His life becomes entangled with the women who embroider his hanging, especially Gytha - handmaiden to the fallen Saxon queen and his sworn enemy. But against their intentions they fall helplessly in love; in doing so Odo comes into conflict with his king and his God and Gytha with Odo's enemies, who mistrust her hold over such a powerful man. Friends and family become enemies, enemies become lovers; nothing in life or in the hanging is what it seems.
I first heard of this book when Dovegreyreader started raving about it earlier in 2007, and the story sounded so good to me, that I went ahead and bought it instead of waiting for it to come in to the library. Good job too, seeing as it still isn't on the catalogue yet!
Our main female character is Gytha. She was a handmaiden to the former Saxon queen. When William the Conqueror, for want of a better word conquered, Gytha was in some ways lucky to escape from the same fate of her queen who became a prisoner. In other ways Gytha was not so lucky, because she had to find some way to make a living and becomes a prostitute. Gytha is saved from this fate when the quality of her needlework is recognised and she is recruited by Odo and William's sister, a formidable woman in her own right, to join the team of embroiderers who are working on an embroidery which will tell the story of the Norman invasion of England. It is there that Gytha meets Odo, a charismatic churchman who is not, let it be said, all that chaste. The attraction between the two is intense, as is the hate that Gytha feels towards him, and she is not sure what action to take - to kill him or love him.
Odo makes Gytha his mistress, an action which in itself causes many issues for the couple, including with the all powerful king of England. As the two fall deeply in love, Odo must fight for both his political and canonical lives. The line between the church and politics has over the years has often been thin, and it is particularly thin during these early medieval days.
This is an extremely detailed book, and I would be stretching it to say that it is a book that I found myself swept away by. It took me a bit longer to read than I would have anticipated but having said that, I was immersed in the 11th century, and I was compelled to continue reading to find out what happened next. In some ways, the romantic side of this story was almost fairy tale like - a sweeping epic love story between two unlikely people. This aspect, along with much historical detail, meant that this was a book to savour and enjoy.
On the front cover the byline says 'A powerful tale of sex, lies and embroidery' and that about covers it!