In the Shadow of the Storm (Book I in The King’s Greatest Enemy series)
by Anna Belfrage
Prior to reading In the Shadow of the Storm I had devoured Anna Belfrage’s Graham Saga series in its entirety—more than once. I think I may have read the first, A Rip in the Veil, perhaps four or five times. They just never grow old. Her writing is fluid, the characters likable and events dramatic and keep-you-on-the-edge-of-your seat thrilling.
However, I wondered. Belfrage herself had said she didn’t think this new series would be my cup of tea and indeed I don’t know 1321 England, where the novel is set, all that well. It wasn’t difficult for me to take the plunge, however, because my previous experience with her work is of being immersed in reader-friendly writing. That is to say she doesn’t withhold information, expecting you to know every reference or nuance in order to enjoy the book. Nor does she spoon feed readers information as if we were not to be trusted handling history.
The story opens as Kit de Courcy is abducted with intent of dropping her in place of her half—and legitimate—sister, Katherine de Monmouth, who is scheduled to marry Adam de Guirande, vassal to Roger, Baron Mortimer. Forced into “replacing” her runaway sister, whose appearance she mirrors, Kit goes through with the wedding, followed by constant tension tempered by Mabel, Katherine’s servant, whose own history with the family is long.
In this time of Edward II, who allows his favorites to unduly and dangerously influence him, despite their own personal ambitions, awaiting fate has a chilling feel. Hugh Despenser the Younger scatters his own supporters amongst the king’s officers, is an unyielding gatekeeper and demands bribes before he will allow baronial access to Edward, a set of circumstances that lends him the opportunity to force relinquishment and confiscation of lands and lordships, rapidly accumulating his own real estate kingdom.
Baron Mortimer, whose family holds a long-standing feud with that of Despenser—owing to the battlefield death of the latter’s grandfather committed by the former’s—watches in horror as Despenser’s power grows and frightening fate comes closer to reality. The Marcher barons initially succeed in having Despenser exiled, though the king protects his favorite, even seizing Welsh lands with the intent to grant them to Despenser. His alliance with Despenser and refusal to stop the violation of his own barons’ privileges put all involved on a clear path to war.
Belfrage succinctly opens up and lays this all out with a narrative that is accessible, polished and enticing. History is never dull with this author, and even an era unknown opens wide, beckoning for readers to step within as she guides us, not only fearlessly on her part, but also while putting us at ease. Once you get rolling, you won’t want to put this book down.
Owing fealty to Mortimer, de Guirande is required to follow his lord, even while he fears he has overreached. After all, this is a time when some officials outright refuse to be in Edward’s presence if Despenser is with him, for fear of being murdered. These concerns overlap his domestic anxieties, what with the rumors concerning his new wife and the baron, his brother reminding him at every turn and Katherine’s bizarre behavior. Slowly, however, the pair begin truly to grow as a couple and their bond sets Katherine—Kit—on a path closer to war as well.
It occurred to me that some readers may balk at what they see as a stereotypical forced marriage of the demure woman to a boisterous and aggressive man, whom she later falls in love with, fights others for and so on. However, it also remains viable that we seem so familiar with these alliances because, unlike weddings followed by years of drudgery and dull existence, even if those were far more common, the former received much more press. To begin with, these pairs were historically more likely to be literate, therefore capable of expressing themselves and recording their experiences. Moreover, even amongst our ancestors, stories of women acting outside the standards of behavior, provided they advanced only to certain spots outside, were far more entertaining than long narratives about women who duly washed dishes for the lengths of their lives. And, of course, our female kin were more likely to enjoy stories in which their sisters, at least to some extent, won what so many wanted: the happiness of having secured a spot in which a woman mattered beyond her ability to reproduce.
So while Adam and Kit falling for one another might not come as a surprise, what happens within all that is to Belfrage’s credit. Her characters are multi dimensional and their lives do not play out according to script. They are complex people with a variety of perspectives on the complicated affairs in their country, which they are required to respond to not only to inform their lives but also to protect them.
Kit having to work through her abduction—it being perpetrated by a woman is the first step in Belfrage’s defiance of the bad caricature of Vedic-like wife stealing—and deal with how to move forward in light of her own experience, principles, fears and, let’s face it, reality of politics, affect her relationships with Adam and Mabel as they weave through each interaction. There are no easy outs, and the author remains true to historical reality by remaining within its confines.
Ever since Adam rode away, Kit seemed to spend her days in endless vigil. Not that she stood on the curtain wall all the time—Lady Joan would not have allowed it—but her mind was always with him, wondering if he was cold, if he was well and alive. Outwardly she maintained a rigid calm, submerging herself in her sewing to allow her thoughts to wander, unimpaired, to him.
“In God’s hands,” Mabel sighed. “Best you pray, my lady.”
So Kit did, becoming a recurring visitor to the little chapel.
“I did not expect such a devout sister-in-law,” William said with a little smile, when yet again he came upon her on her knees at the alter.
“I did not expect to live through the fear of losing my man in warfare,” she retorted.
“You didn’t?” He sounded surprised. “Men of noble birth have always ridden to war with depressing regularity.”
The author moves forward, taking Kit and the others beyond this, geographically as well as within the plot line. We see Kit settle in to who she is, gaining self confidence and growing close to her husband. It is classic Belfrage in the sense that her writing is so wonderfully sinuous, graceful or gritty when called for and one with our reading selves. However, Adam and Kit are their own people within a whole new story, and the events of their lives and perilous, changing times are brought to life with a force that informs and entertains with a staying power as strong as their will to claim their lives for themselves.
Inspired in large part by Ian Mortimer’s The Greatest Traitor, Belfrage not only delves into a period in history unfamiliar to many (including myself), but also does so with aplomb and expertise. Having woven a fictional story within historical events, both containing links back and forth to other political allies and enemies, kin and neighbor, events and consequences, it is one clearly articulated and recounted by a professional. Belfrage’s storytelling, so assured and captivating, is one of the reasons why humans innately love to hear a tale told.
The King’s Greatest Enemy continues in Days of Sun and Glory , most definitely a continuation I shall not like to miss, nor should you.
From Anna Belfrage’s website…
I was always going to be a writer – well in between being an Arctic explorer, a crusader or Richard Lionheart’s favourite page (no double entendre intended – I was far too innocent at the time). Anyway, not for me the world of nine to five, of mortgages and salary checks. Oh no; I was going to be a free spirit, an impoverished but happy writer, slaving away in a garret room.
Life happened. (It does, doesn’t it?) I found myself the bemused holder of a degree in Business Admin, and a couple of years later I was juggling a challenging career, four kids, a husband (or was he juggling me?) a jungle of a garden, a dog, a house …. Not much time for writing there, let me tell you. At most, I stole a moment here or there.
Fortunately, kids grow up. My stolen moments became hours, became days, weeks, months …. It is an obsession, this writing thing. It is a joy and a miracle, a constant itch and an inroad to new people, new places, new times.
A copy of In the Shadow of the Storm was furnished to the blogger in exchange for an honest review.
Images courtesy Anna Belfrage.