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Lady Macbeth    by Susan Fraser King order for
Lady Macbeth
by Susan Fraser King
Order:  USA  Can
Crown, 2008 (2008)
Hardcover, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

According to Susan Fraser King's research and resulting fictional portrayal of her life, Lady Macbeth got bad press from William Shakespeare. She and her husband actually provided 'Seventeen years of plenty and peace for Scotland' in an era when this was rare indeed. King shows Lady Gruadh (called Rue of the Sorrows) as an impulsive, spirited young woman aware of her ancient bloodline and concerned to protect it from the very real enemies all around her.

Rue's story starts in 1025 when she is nine years old and is abducted for the first - but not last - time. As a great-granddaughter of Malcolm I of Scotland and granddaughter of Kenneth II, with Irish royalty on her mother's side, Gruadh inghean Bodhe mac Cineadh mhic Dubh is a valuable prize for anyone hoping to rule. Though her father is a direct descendant of Malcolm I, by Celtic tradition, the monarchy does not pass directly in patrilineal succession but rather alternates bloodlines. The current king, Malcolm II wants to change that. Gruadh is quickly recovered from that first raid, but her elder brother is killed.

At age thirteen, Rue is kidnapped by Norsemen led by Thorfin Sigurdsson, jarl of the Orkney Islands. After being rescued, she persuades her father to allow her to learn the use of weapons like legendary warrior princess Scathach. At age fifteen, Bodhe gives her a sword of her own. Gruadh also practices the talent for magic that she has inherited from her mother. Then comes her betrothal and marriage to the powerful middle-aged Gilcomgan, mormaer of Moray (who with his brother was fined for killing their uncle, the previous mormaer and father of Macbeth). Rue finds her new husband 'surprising good company', discovering that he's a talented storyteller.

When Rue is seven months pregnant with Gilcomgan's child, Macbeth strikes back against his father's killer. As was common in such situations, he weds Lady Gruadh, taking her new son Lulach under his protection. Gradually Rue becomes reconciled to Gilcomgan's death and to her new - and younger - husband. She's determined to do all in her power to protect Lulach. Malcolm II dies and is succeeded by his son Duncan, who wages war for six years and never wins a battle. This leads to unrest and Macbeth, through his link to Gruadh, is well positioned to make a bid for the throne. Early in their life together, Rue is warned by old Una, who can see into the future that her husband should 'Beware the son of the warrior whose spilled blood will make him a king.' Of course, readers know they should heed that warning.

Throughout the story, highborn men on both sides murder - or attempt to - those who might block their own path to power. Susan Fraser King weaves a stirring tale from what little is known of the life of Lady Macbeth. Certainly it seems all too likely that her name - and her husband's - would have been blackened by the enemy who succeeded them. I very much enjoyed the details of daily life that the author (who has an academic background in medieval studies) incorporates into her story and the threads of foretelling and magic that run through it - and that might have seeded Shakespeare's infamous three witches. Lady Macbeth is highly recommended.

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