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Another Elizabeth Chadwick book, this one concerning the life of Willam Marshal, the son of John from the previous book A Place Beyond Courage.
The Scarlet Lion follows the stories of Willam and his wife Isabelle, heiress to estates in Normandy, England and Ireland. William has been a knight throughout Richard's reign and is set to follow John, Richard's brother's reign as well, when things start to go awry. John is scared of Willaim's loyalty, so forces him to place not one, but two sons in his care, as surety for his support.
The book not only follows William, but also Isabelle and her stories of court and home life. Isabelle is a strong, determined woman, matched only by her husband and their love for one another, entwined as they are by the links of family. Court intrigues and battles fulfil much of the sotry, and we are given both sides, those from home and from the battlefront, giving a richly written descriptive story that allows the reader to become enmeshed in the lives oif Isabelle, William and their children.
I am something of a fan of historical novels in general, but many of the ones that I have read tend to be from the Georgian era or later. I was put off by most novels that focused on the medieval era or earlier mainly because they were chiefly concerned with battles and were very much male-orientated. It's not that I have a problem with men, it's just that it's difficult to relate to books that have so little female characters! This book, however, was a refreshing surprise, with a stimulating mixture of strong male and female characters to please both sexes.
The Scarlet Lion deals with the life of William Marshal (1146-1219), a senior knight in the royal household. It is the sequel to The Greatest Knight, which deals with the earlier stages of his life up until around 1194. I have not read The Greatest Knight, but the Scarlet Lion can easily be read as a stand-alone novel, and at no point during the narrative did I find myself lost or wondering why certain events were happening. This is a great testament to Chadwick's skill as an author. She has a fantastic ability to flesh out the facts and turn the aridness of historical dates and sources into a real and tangible world. The early medieval period is one that I knew virtually nothing of, but the novel easily transported me back to the 13th Century without using tedious explanations about unfamiliar customs or phrases. Indeed, although the whole time period was unfamiliar to me, I never felt like anything needed explaining. This is, I think, the novel's pre-eminent strength.
The phase in time we're talking about was by no means a calm one. With King Richard dead, his brother John takes the throne, after the other possible successor dies a mysterious death while under John's custody. 'Bad King John', as he is sometimes known, maintains a somewhat different rule of England to that of his brother, yet William Marshal swears an oath of loyalty to him in order to keep his family lands intact. However, William's relationship with the King breaks down, and William's two eldest sons are ordered to court to be hostages to ensure William's loyalty to the Crown. William's wife, Isabelle, is distraught at this command and the couple have an argument about it that threatens to destroy their marriage. Meanwhile, battles are raging up and down the country, and King Philip of France tries to make a move on English territory.
The above is really just a tiny fragment of the whole story which spans 22 years, and the Marshals have a real rollercoaster ride trying to keep their family together whilst trying not to anger King John too much; if that happened, they would be outcasts, and there would be no safe haven. Although the novel is predominantly about William, I believe his wife also plays a central role in the narrative. Although the whole story is told in the third person, much of the book comes from Isabelle's perspective, and through her we get to know the more human side of 'the greatest knight that ever lived'. The book begins and ends from her perspective, which gives the narrative an altogether more feminine balance to the raging fights in court and on the battlefield. I think this balance is what makes the book work and stand out from other historical novels. We see William giving his all on the battlefield and we see Isabelle in labour with her babies. We see William practising diplomacy between the Kings of England and France, and we see Isabelle trying to find husbands for her daughters.
And then, of course, when William and Isabelle come together this culminates in some passionate yet tasteful bedroom scenes. William and Isabelle's love for each other is without bounds, and it is plain to see that neither would be anything without the other. Both come across as unfailingly strong characters when they are together, but without each others' support they can do nothing. Although historical sources don't tell us as much about Isabelle as they do William (for obvious reasons), the fact that she is mentioned quite a few times suggests that she played a much larger role in William's decisions than many wives at the time did.
The book is around 570 pages long, but the chapters don't tend to be more than a few pages long, which makes it easy to pick up and put down whenever you want. I found that reading a couple of chapters before bed was fine for me; it's not a book that would keep you awake at night reading it, but at the same time it's not one you'd want to leave without reading for more than a week. The narrative style is pretty easy to follow, but I wouldn't say it's exactly light reading since there is hardly a moment of peace for William and Isabelle throughout the novel! However, the passion of William and Isabelle for each other was, for me, the thing that made me want to read on. Obviously, though, people have different tastes, and if you don't like novels set in the past then this probably isn't for you. There isn't a lot of humour in it either, save for some sexual innuendo from time to time, but there is a great deal of happiness, which I think more than makes up for it.
Overall, then, I have to say I was thoroughly impressed by The Scarlet Lion, and Elizabeth Chadwick is a more than capable author, transporting her audience back to a time that some may know nothing about, with veritable ease. For me it ticked all the boxes about what a historical novel should be, and it is also reassuring to know that just a lot of what is described in the book actually happened. And anything that isn't backed up by historical evidence... well, I'm sure it could have happened! A five-star book by a very talented author.