Friday, October 16, 2015

The Leopard Unleashed by Elizabeth Chadwick

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Personal Library
Read: October 16, 2015

Renard, Lord of the Ravenstow, is a crusader in Antioch, a place far removed from the cold Welsh Marches of his birth. Summoned home to his ailing father, Renard brings Olwen with him, an exotic dancing girl whose sensuous beauty and wild ways have ensnared him. Yet, in a political match made by their families, Renard is already betrothed to the innocent Elene and he know he is also returning to the duty of marriage. Torn between Olwen and Elene, Renard's personal dilemma is set against a background of increasing civil strife as Ranulf of Chester, his greedy neighbour, strives to snatch his lands. When Renard is taken prisoner at the Battle of Lincoln, his fate is placed in the hand of two women - his former mistress, now in the bed of his deadliest enemy, and his determined yet inexperienced wife, protecting his lands against terrible odds...

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Stephen of Blois, Empress Matilda,
Raymond of Poitiers and Owain Gwynedd
I've a problem with Elizabeth Chadwick. Well, not personally, I've a problem reading her work. I pick it up intending to read one chapter, but somewhere between points a and b, I fall through the damned pages and lose all sense of time and responsibility. I should have started the laundry two hours ago, but what was I doing instead? Tramping around the Welsh Marches.

Am I sorry? Not in the least. Okay, maybe a little. I'll be scrambling to find clean clothes come morning, but I'm quite pleased with the time I spent on this book. Chadwick's ability to blend fact and fiction is brilliant and while I don't feel The Leopard Unleashed is her strongest effort, I admire much of the content and greatly enjoyed the narrative's direction and tone. 

Guyon trumps both, but I admit I like Renard more than Adam. I had difficulty warming to the latter when reading The Running Vixen, but Renard's easy-going manner, modest tastes, and perceptive nature intrigued me almost instantly. I wish Chadwick had written more from his perspective, I think there was a lot of untapped potential in his character, but I liked what she offered and thought his personality and disposition engaging just the same. 

That said, I think Elene the strongest of the three heroines. She's a contented homemaker, but shrewd, intelligent, and capable. She's insecure, but I think her struggles intensely realistic and I liked how Chadwick was able to showcase her emotions without sacrificing Elene's integrity. Her gentle inexperience makes an interesting contrast to Olwen's bold proclivities, but she's intensely empathetic and I found much to appreciate in her quiet strength and intense loyalties. 

I wasn't particularly fond of Olwen, but that has more to do with the structure and development of her character than her personality. She's shamelessly bold and conniving, but I think she'd have read better if the reader had been privy to more of her scheming. She disappears for several chapters of the narrative and is reintroduced in an entirely new situation and I would have liked to see her rationalizing that transition. The incident with Ranulf's would have been equally interesting, as would her seduction of Owain. All this happens 'off screen' and while I recognize the intent, I felt the approach left her somewhat fractured and arbitrary. Like Renard, I liked what was offered, but I think more could have been done with her character and role.

The supporting cast didn't interest me as much as they did in earlier novels. Ranulf of Chester was more a more convincing antagonist that Walter de Lacey, but I struggled to understand the origin of the animosity he harbored against Renard. Judith and Guyon make brief appearances, but their roles aren't as significant as Miles' in The Running Vixen. Henry felt underdeveloped in my eyes which made his emotional trials difficult to fathom. Hamo was superfluous in my opinion and while Stephen made an impression, he paled next to predecessors William II and Henry I. I truly enjoyed Chadwick's interpretation of Antioch and the Battle of Lincoln, but I felt the absence of Raymond of Poitiers and Empress Matilda. Both are mentioned, but neither enjoys face time with the reader. Owain Gwynedd interacts with Ranulf toward the end of the novel, but it is a cameo appearance, one that left several unanswered questions in its wake. 

There is a lot going on towards the end of the novel and while I appreciated the action, I felt the final chapters rushed and slightly awkward. It isn't like Chadwick to leave loose ends, but I felt there was a lot of unresolved drama in this particular volume and that put a slight damper on my appreciation of the novel's strengths. I loved the book and would definitely recommend it, but I wish there'd been more to it as it doesn't offer the closure one expects at the end of a series. 

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It was more than just the girl, he thought. It was the responsibility for Ravenstow. It was the sight of their father dying by fractions before his eyes. It was the constant living on a blade's edge. What wonder that he should seek oblivion in the arms of a woman who was a reminder of the lost freedom of Outremer. What wonder that her should object to being roused and thrust face to face with duty.
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