Elizabeth Chadwick I am certain she has written the perfect book that cannot be topped. And each and every time I read her next book, I find I am wrong. Such is the case, once again, with To Defy a King, published this month by Sourcebooks Landmark. Twenty years ago, Ms. Chadwick won the Betty Trask award and launched her historical fiction career. Since then she has moved from strength to strength, especially over the last few years with her novelized accounts of the lives of real people who played their parts in the history of medieval England.
In To Defy a King, the author weaves a rich tapestry from many threads, recounting some of the most important years in the life of Mahelt Marshal, daughter of the famed knight and warrior, William Marshal. Married while still a girl to a man ten years her senior, Mahelt leaves a household where she is loved and where her mother is respected for her brain as well as her lands and child-bearing, and finds herself at the mercy of her strict father-in-law, Roger Bigod, Earl of Norfolk. Fortunately, her husband does not share his father's opinion of women and soon they form a strong, loving bond that will be tested time and time again as Mahelt finds herself torn between loyalty to her family and loyalty to her husband.
England in the early 13th century is ruled by King John, a ruthless man who takes what he perceives to be his and proves an intractable enemy, especially when thwarted. His barons grow increasingly unhappy and many rebel, seeking to force some form of restraint on their sovereign. It is against this background that Mahelt and Hugh build their marriage, only to see it threatened by a mistake in judgement that ends with their son as a hostage.
The heart of this book is Mahelt, a woman true to her time, yet still strong and vibrant, and far from perfect. That is part of her charm - she makes mistakes and proves to be headstrong and stubborn. Hugh is a more than a match for her, honourable and strong, but also a fallible man forced at times to choose between his wife and his filial and political obligations. Together they pick their way along a treacherous path that could see them lose all in order to stand up to a man they believe is not fit to rule.
Far from being overshadowed by Mahelt and Hugh, the other central characters are equally well depicted, with their own strengths and foibles. One of Ms. Chadwick's many talents is the ability to create concurrent supporting storylines which complement the main plot while also following their own arcs. My favourite one is that which follows Hugh's tense relationship with his half-brother, William, Earl of Salisbury, who is also half-brother to the king, illustrating as it does the rivalries and jealousies that exist between men who want to like each other but can't.
As always, the historical background is impeccable, full of glorious detail. Ms. Chadwick has a knack for knowing exactly which historical tidbits to highlight in order to paint for her reader a living picture of the past. Without resorting to gadzookery, she imbues her dialogue and narrative with medieval words and cadences that sound natural, drawing her reader ever deeper into a near perfect recreation of the turbulent era.
The further I read into this wonderful novel, the harder it was for me to pull myself away. So when you curl up with it, be sure you have a few hours to devote...you won't regret.