Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A Place Beyond Courage by Elizabeth Chadwick

The book's synopsis from the publisher's website:

The early twelfth century is a time for ambitious men to prosper. John FitzGilbert is a man of honor and loyalty, sworn to royal service. When the old king dies, his successor rewards the handsome and ambitious John with castles and lands. But King Stephen has a tenuous hold on both his reign and his barons, and when jealous rivals at court seek to destroy John, he backs a woman's claim to the crown, sacrifices his marriage, and eventually is forced to make a gamble that is perhaps one step too far.
Rich with detail, masterful in its storytelling, A Place Beyond Courage is a tale of impossible gambles and the real meaning of honor.

Elizabeth Chadwick is one of the very few historical authors writing today on whom you can rely to deliver historically accurate and at the same time attention capturing stories. A Place Beyond Courage is a prime example of this. Even though the actual events on which this story is based are riveting in themselves, Chadwick adds her personal touch by focusing our attention on figures not as well known as King Stephen or Empress Matilda but crucial in the shaping of history nonetheless.

John Fitz Gilbert, the father of Chadwick's most famous hero, William Marshal, is rarely mentioned in popular historical fiction, despite the fact that, as this novel helped me learn it, he was that crucial figure in the fight for the throne of England. I'll be honest, he is perhaps the most desirable character to me from all the historical fiction books  I've read so far. The way Ms. Chadwick builds up his case (not entirely out of thin air either) as not quite the villain we, contemporaries might think him to be is very convincing. True, John Marshal is not exactly the perfect knight his son will be but that only makes him all the more exciting and more fun to read about. Frankly, the more I read about his offspring, William Marshal, the more I wish he inherited some dark traits from his father. Maybe then I'd be more inclined to read novels about him. Did John really gave up his toddler son, sent him to certain death without so much as a wink? Or was there much more to the story, was John in a place from which he would emerge a somewhat broken man, regardless of what his personal decisions might have been? It is a moral dilemma and the author helps us realize that rarely is anything in life clear-cut, especially when it comes to choices between one's honor, country or family. Regardless of what you'll end up feeling towards John Marshal, be it hatred, fury, love or admiration, I guarantee you will feel a lot. One thing Elizabeth Chadwick doesn't write is bland characters.

Speaking of characters and personal touches, the one distinct trait I've come to recognize in Chadwick's books is a presence of a strong female character. In A Place Beyond Courage it is Sybilla, the second wife of John Marshal. While almost all females in the Middle Ages can be regarded as strong, considering what they had to contend with all their lives, Sybilla takes a special prize for having the courage to think for herself, to use her common sense in all matters, to question things, arrive independently at conclusions and act accordingly. Sybilla simply is a kind of woman I most want to identify with when reading novels. I say 'want to' because as things stand, I'm not all that myself and only wish to be 'when I grow up'.

A Place Beyond Courage is a splendid book, all around: the high quality of writing, the great amount of research and the quick-paced action. At the risk of sounding cliche, there really is never a dull moment in this novel.


FTC: I've received an ARC of A Place Beyond Courage from the publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc. for a review.