Saturday, October 3, 2015

The Running Vixen by Elizabeth Chadwick

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Personal Library
Read: October 3, 2015

It's 1126. Heulwen, daughter of Welsh Marcher baron Guyon FitzMiles, has grown up with her father's ward, Adam de Lacey. There has always been a spark between them, but when Heulwen marries elsewhere, to Ralf le Chevalier, a devastated Adam absents himself on various diplomatic missions for King Henry I. When Ralf is killed in a skirmish, Heulwen's father considers a new marriage for her with his neighbour's son, Warrin de Mortimer. Adam, recently returned to England, has good reason to loathe Warrin and is determined not to lose Heulwen a second time. But Heulwen is torn between her duty to her father and the pull of her heart. Adam is no longer the awkward boy she remembers, but a man who stirs every fibre of her being - which places them both in great danger, because Warrin de Mortimer is not a man to be crossed and the future of a country is at stake...

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Henry I and Empress Matilda
I've no nostalgic memories of Elizabeth Chadwick's The Running Vixen. I've read The Wild Hunt three times, but the second installment of 'The Ravenstow Trilogy' enjoyed limited international release and was next to impossible to find when I first discovered the series in the late nineties. Fortunately for me, the book was reprinted in 2009 and I was afforded a cost-effective means of indulging my interest.  

Though not specifically illustrated, I love Chadwick's mention of The White Ship and the crisis it created for Henry I. The book itself documents events between 1026 and 1028, but it is chock full of references to The Anarchy and the events that led to it. William le Clito, Geoffrey of Anjou and Hugh de Mortimer enjoy small, but noteworthy roles and I liked how their inclusion added to the political drama that played out in the background of the novel. I was further impressed with how Chadwick made the bureaucratic unrest relevant in the eyes of her fictional cast. Miles' grandson and namesake drowning alongside William Adelin, Adam serving as royal escort for Empress Matilda, and Guyon's personal support of Stephen of Blois weren't exactly pertinent to Adam and Heulwen's story, but such details spoke to the author's deep appreciation for the facts on which her story is based and her dedication in recreating this time and place for her audience. 

As far as the narrative is concerned, I wont deny feeling The Running Vixen took a long time to find its feet. Chadwick's books usually draw me in immediately, but I was a good seventy pages into this installment before I fell into the story and I think that had a lot to do with the relationship between Heulwen and Adam. Unlike their predecessors, Adam and Heulwen have history. They are at a turning point in their association while the reader is playing catch-up. Chadwick handled the situation well, but as stated, development took a little longer than I'd anticipated. In comparing the book to its predecessor, there is also a notable shift in both style and tone. It's not bad by any mean, but it is very different. 

I found Heulwen fascinating, especially as the story progressed. She has many original attributes, but I noted traits reminiscent of both mother and stepmother in her demeanor. I made no secret of my appreciation for Rhosyn in my review of The Wild Hunt and maybe I'm alone in this, but I thought Heulwen's tendency to seek solace away from the confines of the keep a nice nod to her mother's aversion to stone walls. Her married life is challenging, but Chadwick managed to make her demons very different from Judith's which is why I feel the story works. The author picked up where she left off, but took things a completely new direction to explore entirely new subject matter. 

Guyon is a tough act to follow, but I think despite the odds, Chadwick managed to do a lot of interesting things with Adam. I thought his struggle to balance his own merit against his father's legacy inspired and feel it brought an interesting dynamic to his role, especially toward the end of the novel when his insight serves a poignant and tender purpose. I also liked that for all the skill in his sword arm, he finds himself at something of a disadvantage with Heulwen. It's not something I've noted often in medieval fiction, but I found the intimate role reversal both striking and original. 

Miles caught my eye in book one of the series, but he shines in book two. Despite his pride, the aging patriarch is openly devoted to his family and I liked how Chadwick utilized him to further his granddaughter's story. Rhodri has a lot going on under the surface and while I wasn't particularly fond of him, I wont deny appreciating how the author's presentation challenged me to think about him from different angles. As far as antagonists go, I felt Warrin de Mortimer stronger than Walter de Lacey. He's isn't likable or sympathetic, but he isn't one dimensional either and I liked the idea of villain with layers. 

The Running Vixen is heavily romantic, but it is also clever and engaging. It's a little slow in places, but it is a solid sequel to The Wild Hunt and something I'd definitely recommend to fans of medieval fiction. 

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"Widows don't stay widows long in the marches. It is too dangerous, and Heulwen accepts the fact..."
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