Considering how much I enjoy historical fiction, Elizabeth Chadwick is one of those authors I feel I should probably love. Until recently though, I had only tried to read one of her books – which I think was Lords of the White Castle – and couldn’t get into it at all. On a visit to the library a couple of weeks ago I decided it was time to give her another chance and as I don’t know much about any of her books, I chose this one almost at random.
The Champion is set in France, Wales and England towards the end of the 12th century. Our hero is Alexander de Montroi, a seventeen-year-old novice monk who runs away from the monastery after being abused by the sub-prior. Deciding to swap the religious life for the battlefield, Alexander asks his older brother, Hervi, to help him become a knight. He proves to be a skilled fighter and is soon an important member of Hervi’s camp, jousting and taking part in tourneys (tournaments).
It’s here that Alexander meets and falls in love with Monday de Cerizay, the daughter of Hervi’s friend and fellow knight. Despite having wealthy relatives in England, Monday has spent her whole life travelling around the tourney circuit. Having seen what this lifestyle has done to her parents, Monday longs to better herself. So when Alexander asks her to marry him, she panics and leaves the camp without letting him know where she is going. Years later, Monday and Alexander meet again and have to begin rebuilding their relationship all over again, despite the attempts of Monday’s rich and powerful grandfather to split them up – and the reappearance of Alexander’s sworn enemy, Eudo Le Boucher.
The medieval world Elizabeth Chadwick has created in The Champion is amazingly vivid and believable. The amount of detail she goes into when describing clothes, fabrics, food and drink etc is very impressive. In particular I thought the descriptions of the knights’ camps at the tourneys were very well written and felt realistic. Chadwick shows us the less glamorous side of a knight’s life: worrying about money, searching for a rich man to sponsor them in the tourneys, looking for work in the winter, as well as the constant travelling around from camp to camp, running the risk of being defeated in battle and losing their horse, their possessions or even their life.
There are a few real historical figures who appear in the book, including Richard Coeur de Lion (Richard the Lionheart), his brother John, Count of Mortain (the future King John of England) and the knight, William Marshal. But it’s not really necessary to be familiar with the history of this period, as the focus is very much on the fictional lives of Alexander and Monday. I liked Alexander from the beginning, though I wasn’t so fond of his brother Hervi (maybe because his first appearance in Chapter One doesn’t really endear him to the reader) but as the story progressed I loved watching his relationship with Alexander develop, playing the role of the protective older brother. In fact, I thought the male characters in this book were stronger overall than the female ones. I didn’t find Monday a very memorable character and I didn’t always agree with or understand her actions either.
Once I got into this book, I really enjoyed it. I didn’t think the romantic storyline was very original or imaginative, but the wonderful medieval setting more than made up for it. I feel more like giving Elizabeth Chadwick’s other books a chance now that I know I do enjoy her work and my failure with Lords of the White Castle was probably just a case of the wrong book at the wrong time. Any suggestions as to which one I should try next?