A moment of weakness, a lifetime of ambition, and a hope for happiness somewhere in-between.
Publisher: Sphere (little Brown)
First Published: 1997
Date Reviewed: 12th November 2012
Alexander turns up on his brother’s tourney circuit, having run away from a deprived monastery. Hervi agrees to take him on, but he’ll have to start at the bottom of the career ladder. If career is what one can call the dead-end “work” that Hervi does. The brothers share their time with the Cerizays, Alexander getting on well with Monday who is close to him in age. It’s a good familial relationship for the most part, until the night both teenagers get drunk and the atmosphere becomes intimate. But Monday doesn’t want the life Alexander offers, a continuation of the life they already lead – she wants the riches her mother once possessed. But leaving it behind won’t be easy after what has happened between them, especially with the added threats posed by Alexander’s enemy and Monday’s earl of a grandfather.
The Champion is a particularly good work. Focusing on ambitions of ordinary people, the personalities of the characters allow the story to move between varying locations and social classes, giving the reader a broad overview of life at the time. The characters also allow for some leadership history also, as whilst the hero, heroine, and their family, are creations of Chadwick’s mind, many others are from the past.
And what fine creations those fictional characters are. As always, Chadwick has conjured some well-rounded people, with many things to both worry about and enjoy, but although they are very likeable, they aren’t without flaws. Indeed part of the plot, the need to better oneself, is cause for a large part of the separation between Alexander and Monday, and there is a place for domestic history too.
Neither Alexander nor Monday start out particularly faithful where sexual relations are concerned, which leaves Chadwick able to examine subjects such as prostitution, sexual favours, and in regards to sex in general, contraception. The latter is particularly prominent in this novel, being discussed by the women openly when they are away from the men, showing the power that a woman could yield over her body when the information was attainable. Whilst a little of the information has been fashioned by Chadwick (she acknowledges this in the back of the book) the vast majority is true to life and demonstrates that things weren’t nearly as straightforward as illustrations may first suggest. Indeed far from being happy with their lot as mothers, Chadwick’s book shows that women in the Middle Ages were just as concerned with pregnancy as we are now, and that away from the obvious issues of childbirth in an unsanitary age, the idea of women being married to pro-create was often limited to the men of the family.
Aside from this, time is spent on sexuality, with Chadwick demonstrating the affects a forced monastic life could have on monks – both on those targeted and those who shouldn’t really have been ordained in the first place, and also the issues that arose in a society where being homosexual was acknowledged but frowned upon. What is nice, where the latter is concerned, is how Chadwick shows that people could still command respect and loyalty, though of course the jokes and the fact that it wouldn’t be the case for less well-off people show society for what it was. And no holds are barred when explaining King John’s marriage to a twelve-year-old – you are told that it happened even if the actual intimate details are left out.
Of course a historical romance would not be such without the sex. As is generally the case, Chadwick both creates spice and closes the door.
Chadwick favours bold females, however in Monday’s case she has laced this boldness with a strong stubbornness that takes some getting used to. Whilst Monday is admirable most of the time, some of her choices may be difficult to fathom, and the consequences of conduct are demonstrated to good effect. Yet Chadwick never suggests that Monday gets what was coming to her; aside from a conversation of how choices have affected lives, Chadwick remains fair, treating her flawed heroine as she would an angelic one. This means that Monday is very real.
Sharing the basic ambition of betterment, Alexander also strays from his path, attracted by a potentially glittering career. He is more grounded, perhaps, than Monday, but this helps the development of both of them flourish, enabling differences both in the subject of their ambitions, and the strength of them, to be discussed fully. Part of the reason the book works so well is this constant evaluation of their development.
And whilst many of Chadwick’s books have family members included, Hervi is an exception. He gets his own storyline, his own development, and continues to play a role. Perhaps best of all, he is funny without being a comic relief, and his thread is just as important as the others.
There are several encounters with the enemy, meaning the concept can feel overused, but it’s important to remember that it is realistic, too. It shows just how crucial family was seen to be, even where there were separations.
A major boon of this book is that unlike many of the others, the plot of The Champion stays right until the end – compared to, for example, Lords Of The White Castle, where the last few chapters seemed to be holding on to a horse that had bolted. This is in part due to the multi-layered story, and the myriad of extra issues that the characters have to deal it – it enables the book to be lacking in dull moments. In addition to this, the story takes place over a few years, with little time spent off page, as it were. In other words you will never turn a page to see a date a few years later after having read something compelling in the last chapter. There are some gaps, but they are minimal, short enough for the reader to be able to guess what would have happened.
The Champion is Chadwick at her best; a detailed novel that includes both fact and fiction, plenty of culture and social politics, a drawn out romance, and ordinary people you can root for. The addition of extra historical issues is a further recommendation and the icing on the cake. To put it simply, if you know little before starting this book, you will know a lot once finished, and unlike the basic information provided by basic education, you will come away knowing a great deal more; and with the added bonus of knowing how it relates to our present day and how far our society has come.
November 14, 2012, 1:59 am
Huh, I own The Greatest Knight, but haven’t read it. Maybe I should if Chadwick is this good.
November 14, 2012, 11:59 am
I would never have picked up this book or others by this author based on the covers (too historical) but your review and my current addiction to the Game of Thrones miniseries are tempting me to try it!
November 15, 2012, 1:33 am
I agree with Laurie about not being attracted to these books based on the cover, but I have heard so many people rave about Chadwick that I think I need to give her a try.
I like that she writes bold women and also covers social issues. Really intriguing!
November 15, 2012, 10:06 pm
I enjoyed this book too, as you know. The descriptions of life on the tourney circuit were fascinating. I also love the way Chadwick is able to create strong female characters who still feel believable as medieval women. And I really liked Hervi too – I thought he was a great character!
November 19, 2012, 7:25 pm
Liviania: I wasn’t a big fan of that one, but I’m biased towards her more romance-based books. It’s a good introduction, though, and leads you into the series she’s currently writing.
Laurie: The covers are quite stereotypical, aren’t they? They don’t show the face though, which although over-done, helps you create your own images. I’ve not seen Game Of Thrones, but the medieval aspect would make it similar, of course.
Anbolyn: I can’t remember what made me opt for her books, but yes, many do rave about her, and I’d say with good reason. The women are perhaps the biggest draw.
Helen: I chose it as my next one based on your review ;) The tourney circuit being so prominent was awesome. Hervi was brilliant, and I loved how he was always a good guy, because so often the brothers in these books are nasty.