In the Shadow of Midnight
Note: Although In the Shadow of Midnight can be read as a standalone, I don’t recommend it. There will be spoilers for Through a Dark Mist (Robin Hood #1) in this review.
ItSoM begins with a prologue. After a failed attempt to reinstate himself as a claimant to the throne of England, Arthur, Duke of Brittainy, son of Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine, is imprisoned at Rouen Castle along with his older sister Eleanor, who insisted upon remaining with him even though she had known surrender and captivity would be her only reward for loyalty. Exhausted, hungry and filthy, Arthur refuses to pledge fealty to his uncle, King John, or renounce his claim to the throne in exchange for freedom, remaining defiant in the face of his uncle’s threats,
“Take my eyes. Take my hands and my limbs. Take anything you wish piece by piece and see how quickly the tide of condemnation would turn. Kill me, aye, and you remove an enemy from power. Torture me, blind me, cripple me, and every knight in the realm would see you for the yellow cur you are.”
Enraged by Arthur’s continued defiance, King John brutally murders him. After a brief period of silence, Reginald De Braose (the guard at the door), enters the cell. He discovers not much more than a shapeless lump of bloodied mush and shattered bone where the proud, golden head of the Duke of Brittany should have been, and the king in the throes of an apoplectic fit. The prologue ends with De Braose racing from the cell for help.
When Henry and Ariel de Clare’s parents died, they went to live with their aunt Isabella (their mother’s half-sister) and her husband, the powerful Earl Marshal of England, William of Pembroke. Pembroke quickly recognized Henry’s potential as a knight, only to discover Ariel expected to train with him and had no interest in becoming a lady. Eventually, a compromise was reached. Henry taught Ariel everything he learned, and everyone pretended not to know. When In the Shadow of Midnight begins, Ariel is a fiercely independent – and lethal – eighteen-year-old, with no plans to marry. But the surprise return of her brother Henry to Pembroke (accompanied by Welsh lords, Rhys and Dafydd ap Iorwerth), upends her happy life.
Henry claims that King John has promised Ariel to Reginald De Braose, one of his faithful retainers. Ariel is furious; William assured her she could choose her own husband. But with William away in France, and Lady Isabella inclined to agree to the marriage, Ariel pleads with her aunt for permission to go to her uncle, so Henry and Ariel make their way to France, where Pembroke takes them to visit Castle Amboise, home of Lord Randwulf de la Seyne Sur Mer (the Black Wolf!!), Lady Servanne and their children, Sparrow, and Eduard FitzRandwulf d’Amboise, Lucien’s bastard son with Nicolaa de la Haye. (Lucien learned he had a son at the end of Through a Dark Mist; Eduard helped them escape after learning the evil Etienne wasn’t his father).
Pembroke is angry with his niece, but focused on a much bigger problem. In a private meeting with Lord Randwulf and members of his inner circle, Pembroke pledges the small group to secrecy before revealing what he’s learned. He reveals that Arthur of Brittany is most likely dead, and Eleanor remains imprisoned by King John. He proposes they form an alliance to rescue her and place her on the English throne. After a heated debate, the group agrees and tasks Eduard, a close friend of Eleanor, with leading the rescue attempt.
Posing as knights returning from the Crusades (with Ariel disguised as a squire), the rescue party secretly sets out. Ariel, unaware of their true purpose, believes the group is retrieving a valuable pearl. After a series of misadventures, they reach Rennes where they await word of from Pembroke. When the messenger finally reveals Eleanor is imprisoned at Corfe Castle (governed by a sadistic Guy Gisbourne), they return to England and strike out for the castle.
I know, I still haven’t mentioned the romance! Okay. Eduard and Ariel get off to a ROUGH start. They meet as strangers; he spots her in the armory and manhandles her. Ariel mistakenly assumes he’s a servant and delivers a scathing set-down. Eduard then attempts to apologize, but Ariel rejects his apology and insults him. Later that night neither can sleep and they both wind up on the rooftop. One thing leads to another (the kissy kissy kind). Ariel is furious; Eduard is frustrated. But it keeps happening! By the time they depart Amboise, Ariel is convinced Eduard is pledged to another woman (he wears a woman’s ring on a necklace), but she’s unable to resist her attraction to him or his kisses. Eduard is overwhelmed by his feelings for Ariel (who’s already engaged!), but focused on the dangerous rescue mission. And Henry is super big-brother suspicious.
Friends, Ariel is unlikeable for much of the novel – she has zero impulse control, jumps to conclusions (usually the wrong ones), and is often immature and petulant. She’s also fiercely loyal, frequently kind, in love with Eduard, and deadly with a bow and arrow. I ultimately liked her, but she made it difficult. Meanwhile, Eduard is her (likeable) TOTAL opposite. Mature, wise, dedicated to Eleanor (as a friend! As a friend!), and a super badass in a fight (like his dad), he can’t help his lust – and eventually, love – for Ariel. They argue and make-up, argue and make-up… And eventually realize they can’t live without each other. Their love affair is sexy and passionate, but disappointing. I was much more interested in the possible love match between Robin (first born son of the Wolf and Lady Servanne) and maid Marienne (the illegitimate daughter of Pembroke). Le sigh.
Despite its underwhelming romance, In the Shadow of Midnight is chock full of intrigue, adventure, villains (Gisbourne is memorably awful), and feats of derring-do. It moves at a brisk pace and I was entertained the whole way through. By the time the dust finally settles, Ms. Canham has cannily set up book three and hooked readers for the long haul. Sherwood Forest figures prominently; there’s the promise of a love match between Robin and maid Marienne; Eduard and Ariel are married and Eleanor… well friends, Eleanor is the lynchpin of the series, and her fictional fate will finally be resolved in The Last Arrow. And Little John, the last missing character from the legend, memorably joins our growing cast of secondary characters.
Romantic (sort of), thrilling, and thoroughly entertaining, In the Shadow of Midnight does a masterful job setting up the conclusion of Canham’s Robin Hood retelling. Recommended.