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Mar 22, 2010

HF Bloggers Round Table: Book Review: The Scarlet Lion by Elizabeth Chadwick

The Scarlet Lion by Elizabeth Chadwick
Paperback: 592 pages
Sourcebooks Reissue March 2010
ISBN-13: 978-0751536591
Review copy provided by Sourcebooks, thank you!
The Burton Review Rating:Four and a Half Stars

The Legend of the Greatest Knight Lives On...William Marshal's skill with a sword and loyalty to his word have earned him the company of kings, the lands of a magnate, and the hand of Isabelle de Clare, one of England's wealthiest heiresses. But he is thrust back into the chaos of court when King Richard dies. Vindictive King John clashes with William, claims the family lands for the Crown- and takes two of the Marshal sons hostage. The conflict between obeying his king and rebelling over the royal injustices threatens the very heart of William and Isabelle's family. Fiercely intelligent and courageous, fearing for the man and marriage that light her life, Isabelle plunges with her husband down a precarious path that will lead William to more power than he ever expected.

The Scarlet Lion by Elizabeth Chadwick is rumored to 'stand-alone' and said not to require one to read the previous book by Chadwick, The Greatest Knight. I would disagree, especially for newcomers to the Medieval era. If I hadn't read The Greatest Knight (see my recent review), I would have had a fifty percent chance at finishing The Scarlet Lion. By reading the previous novel, I was able to become intrigued by the characters and get my mind around their habits and mindset (and fall in love with the Marshals). Once I began reading The Scarlet Lion, I thanked my lucky stars for getting the chance to read The Greatest Knight (hereafter abbreviated as TGK).

The reason for the luckiness is that The Scarlet Lion is much more low-key than TGK, and it is not written with the same sense of urgency and drama until the last half of the novel. It is still a great piece of work as I sense it is thoroughly researched and I appreciate the historical details. Dealing with the period of the late 1100's, I was sucked into the dramas of the Angevin Kings in TGK much more so than what we have presented to us with The Scarlet Lion. And Queen Eleanor, whom I adore, was also more prominent in TGK. But with The Scarlet Lion, which picks up at year 1197, Eleanor is elderly and does die within a short time. And the remaining son who is King of England is her youngest son, John, who was once upon a time stylized as John Lackland because all of his elder brothers had multiple lands handed to them, but there was nothing left for John. And John didn't seem to like that very much, as he is portrayed as an embittered, disgusting, vengeful and useless King. Records indeed indicate that his reign was quite disastrous.

The main protagonist is the sexy hunk of a man William Marshal. No, Chadwick never does actually come out and say he is sexy and masculine and gorgeous, but that's how I've got him pictured from TGK, and he is indeed The Greatest Knight in my mind. Let him save me from my burning tower any day. To be fair, his wife is probably just as sexy and gorgeous, because these two folks get it on!!! I've lost count several times and couldn't repeat their names, but the Marshals had somewhere around ten kids. Healthy ones. Ones that lived beyond birth! In fact, in the very first few pages of The Scarlet Lion we are welcoming a son into the family: 'Ah,' she said with satisfaction. 'I was right, it is a boy. Ha-ha, fine pair of hammers on him too!'  Most of my reads have the royal babies being very much sought after, but never have they been as abundant as the Marshals. That was certainly a refreshing change of pace, to have babies popping out happily one after the other. William and Isabelle have wonderful sexual chemistry, so there is a bit of sexual content scattered throughout the book, but nothing too outlandish. I am pleased to say that William is not a whore monger who goes out and beds all the women in sight also (as the author tells us, anyway). So, it is a happy marriage, even with the cranky Irish mother-in-law, Aoife, but less so when King John I sinks his claws into William's family and lands.

Oh, watch out for Aoife though.. rather, as Aoife says it (I just like typing Aoife), because it seems like she is hankering to put a spell on the Marshals..but it is just a heavy drop of dramatic foreshadowing. She says to watch out for the wolves.. sending chills and shivers down her daughter Isabelle's spine.. oh whatever can she mean??? She means that while William is off protecting the idiot King John or the French or English Marshal lands, they are forgetting the lands that are Isabelle's heritage in Ireland and that they must not let the evil Irish lords overstep their bounds. Or she means that King John is a wolf. King John I is keeping William kinda busy in Normandy and England, so of course we know what's going to happen in Ireland. And it does.

Again, King John is a bad king. His character was so evil in this novel that I don't think I could have my opinion changed. That being the case, for most of the novel I was silently screaming at William to run from King John to Ireland in order to at least protect Isabelle's heritage. But instead, we watch William stand by King John as one blunder after the other follows William in his wake. We watch William and Isabelle's offspring grow up and become heroic young men and the girls are betrothed in advantageous marriages. And Isabelle protects her Irish lands while of course William is away, and Isabelle is one tough lady when she lets herself be.

Since we don't have the Angevin brothers' angst in this novel, the political turmoil is focused on King Phillip of France against King John, the last Angevin brother standing which would have surprised everyone twenty years earlier. King Phillip of France is shrewd and cuts right to the point. He makes William an offer he cannot refuse. Is William going to go against King John? Could he ignore his oath to Queen Eleanor and the rest of her sons? How will King John take it? King John is shown here as a total jerk, and is hateful towards the Marshals. John had no sense of loyalty to his own family, thus the fact that his mother Queen Eleanor and her son King Richard favored the Marshals bore little meaning to King John, and perhaps even that made it worse. Bit by bit, King John whittles away at the lands, titles and the happy marriage that the Marshals have, and the reader is forced to turn the page with trepidation as King John strikes again and again. (Die King John, DIE!)

Finally, King John does die, but still leaves Marshal with the sense of loyalty to England that none can compare to. Even though in his sixties, William agrees to become the regent of England for John's young nine year old son, Henry. There are more battles to fight though, and his sons may be with him or against him. The last quarter of the novel makes up for the lackluster beginning of this read, because it did take awhile to get my heart into this one. William Marshal stayed true to character, as the greatest knight, and the last third of the book made up for the slow beginnings.

I was thankful for the helpful family charts at the beginning of book, as well as a few maps to aid us in placing William's whereabouts while doing King John's bidding. The story had a slower pace, but not as many new-to-me words as TGK had for me, thankfully. Isabelle was featured a bit more due to the Irish lands angle, and due to the strife that King John knowingly put into her marriage; she was always listening quietly to gossip or heeding warnings. I enjoyed learning more about William Marshal and his family, but did not feel as in tune to the historical aspect of the story until the second half when the drama started to pick up.

Elizabeth Chadwick has been described as "a gifted novelist and a dedicated researcher; it doesn't get any better than that" by my own favorite medieval author Sharon Kay Penman. If my opinion counts, Sharon Kay Penman would be first, and Jean Plaidy and Elizabeth Chadwick are presently battling it out for second place. I recommend this William Marshal series for any medieval history fan. Those new to medieval times may be a little less in awe to the story, and for them I would recommend Penman, of course, specifically the series that begins with When Christ and His Saints Slept. For those simply wanting the story of the greatest, most loyal and most chivalrous knight that ever lived, Chadwick's William Marshal series is your primary source for that. She will make you fall in love with William Marshal with her unforgettable story of his life, as his memory is finally being given its just rewards. William Marshal fans will be delighted to learn that in one of her next releases, To Defy A King, the story focuses on William’s eldest daughter, Mahelt Marshal who married Hugh Bigod, and includes some of the other siblings within the storyline. But To Defy a King is a sequel to a novel that will be published by Sourcebooks in the fall of 2010 titled For The King’s Favour.

For a giveaway of both of these novels, please check the main site at this post and enter there.(closed)