I had intended to read this book for last year’s 20 Books of Summer but when it became clear I wouldn’t be able to finish it before the deadline I decided to save it to read later. With nearly 600 pages in my paperback edition it wasn’t a book that could be rushed!
Shadows and Strongholds, published in 2004, is a prequel to Lords of the White Castle, which I haven’t read yet, and tells the story of Fulke FitzWarin, known as Brunin due to his brown eyes, and Hawise de Dinan, youngest daughter of Joscelin de Dinan of Ludlow Castle. As the events of this book come first chronologically, I hoped it wouldn’t matter that I was reading the books out of order and that it might actually make things easier.
The novel opens in 1148 with ten-year-old Brunin attending a fair in Shrewsbury with his father, also Fulke FitzWarin, the lord of Whittington. That day, two things happen that will change the course of Brunin’s life. First, he is attacked by Ernalt de Lysle, a young squire who takes pleasure in bullying younger children, and this marks the beginning of a lifelong rivalry between Brunin and Ernalt. Then, Brunin discovers that his father has arranged for him to join the household of his friend Joscelin de Dinan to begin his own training as a squire.
Arriving at Ludlow Castle, the sensitive, awkward Brunin finds his new duties challenging but learns quickly and is soon accepted as part of the family, befriending de Dinan’s daughters Hawise and Sibbi and his young ward, Marion de la Bruere. As the years go by and the children grow into adults, de Dinan and FitzWarin begin to arrange a marriage between Brunin and Hawise – but this is not the time to lead a peaceful married life, as both Whittington and Ludlow are about to come under attack.
As always, Elizabeth Chadwick brings the medieval world vividly to life, from her descriptions of the duties of a squire and the running of a 12th century castle to the risks of childbirth and how to buy a horse at a fair. This novel is set during the Anarchy, the period of civil war that followed the death of Henry I, with his daughter, the Empress Matilda, and nephew, Stephen of Blois, battling for the English throne. Our protagonists and their enemies are forced to choose one side or the other – and some switch sides at least once – but their loyalties seem to count for very little after the war ends and Matilda’s son takes the throne as Henry II. While the changes in the monarchy and the wider issues affecting England as a whole play out in the background, the FitzWarins and de Dinans are understandably more concerned with the threat to their own castles – particularly as there seems to be a traitor within the de Dinan household.
The main characters are all loosely based on people who really existed, although not much is known about some of them and in her author’s note Elizabeth Chadwick explains that a major source for her novel was a rhyming romance written by a 13th century chronicler. There’s obviously a lot of focus on the relationship between Brunin and Hawise, but I have to admit I didn’t find them particularly appealing as the hero and heroine and some of the secondary characters interested me more. I loved Joscelin de Dinan, who remains a good and honourable man during this time of brutal war and shifting loyalties and to whom Fulke FitzWarin entrusts the care of his son, and I was intrigued by the story of Marion de la Bruere, whose ghost is said to haunt the ruins of Ludlow Castle to this day.
Because I wasn’t fully invested in the central romance, this hasn’t become a favourite Elizabeth Chadwick novel but I did enjoy it. I will read Lords of the White Castle soon, but I also have two more of her books on my shelf, The Love Knot and The Marsh King’s Daughter.