The Winter Mantle
The Winter Mantle is by turns fascinating, brutal, and romantic. The writing is consistently top-notch, the historical details are accurate and thorough, and the characters are flawed in an intriguing way. It also reminded me completely of why I started reading much more romance (and much less historical fiction) nearly ten years ago. As much as I admired the writing, the often depressing turns of the book made it hard to pick up at times.
Chadwick’s novel is based on real events, and many of the characters are real people (though of course the emotions and many of the details are supplied by her imagination). The best way to describe the book is that it is almost two books in one. Both are romantic in nature, and only one ends happily. The first half of the story focuses on Waltheof, Earl of Huntingdon, and Judith, niece of William the Conqueror. The story shifts in the second half to their daughter Matilda and Simon de Senlis, a friend of Waltheof’s.
Both storylines are interesting, but I liked the latter far more, and not just because it had the happier ending. Waltheof is flawed, but endearing. His love for Judith and his children is unabashedly passionate, but he has little talent for politics or negotiation, and in the end that is his downfall. At first I thought I would warm up to Judith, but I never did, at least not during her half of the book. In a way her relationship serves as a cautionary tale to her daughter, but it doesn’t make reading Judith’s portion of the book any easier. I found I could forgive some of her behaviors, like reticence and coldness. But when the coldness extended to her newborn daughters (whom she had wanted to be sons) I lost all sympathy for her. Her actions toward the end of her portion of the book are heedless and treacherous, and while I am sure Waltheof forgave her for them, I never really did.
I was about ready to give up when Judith’s romance ended and Matilda’s began. Matilda has the best traits of her father and mother; she’s passionate like her father, but she is much more calculating. Simon has a passion and enthusiasm for Matilda but also has an understanding of court politics. We actually meet him early on when Judith’s heedless mistake nearly costs him his life, and Waltheof saves him. The incident leaves him with a badly broken leg which never heals properly (and will be a challenge for the rest of his life). We see a lot of Simon in the early part of the book as he serves as William’s squire and learns from Waltheof’s mistakes. One of the most tender parts of the book comes as Waltheof faces his own death and tells Simon to think of him as he lives the rest of his life, and to see with “my eyes as well as your own.” Simon takes that advice to heart, and in many ways he succeeds where Waltheof failed.
What I appreciated most about this book was the author’s careful attention to detail. Chadwick definitely belongs to the “you are there” school of Medievals, and every period detail seems authentic. There was never a moment when I felt thrown out of the story by a thought, action, or word that seemed too modern. And Chadwick pulls this off very naturally; nothing ever seems like a history lecture or an opportunity to trot out her extensive research. Occasionally, this makes for some gritty, disturbing scenes. Though the author doesn’t exactly revel in battle gore, she doesn’t shy away from it either. William the Conqueror didn’t maintain power by acting like a nice, sensitive guy, and the story portrays some of his more brutal discipline methods. Strangely enough, it was also surprising to see how much plotting and scheming some noblemen were able to get away with without losing their heads.
The skillful characterization also makes for an interesting read. While I couldn’t quite like Judith, and cringed at some of Waltheof’s political blunders, they do seem like believable people. Simon and Matilda are more than just believable; they are likable as well. Simon makes some mistakes that some readers might find hard to take, including one that is a big turn-off for many romance readers. But on the whole he is sympathetic, and just complicated enough to be interesting. Matilda is proud and brave. She doesn’t let Simon walk all over her, and she stands up to her domineering mother as well. The scene in which she defies her mother is one of the best in the book.
Overall, I found the book a little too melancholy to completely suit my taste. This was particularly true of the often-dreary first half, but the second half was not all smiles and sunshine either. I wouldn’t call this a flaw per se, but it made the book harder for me to pick up, and it made me remember my old habit of mentally rewriting historical fiction so that everyone was a bit happier. (In my version of Gone with the Wind I was sure Scarlett got Rhett back.) That said, I found The Winter Mantle worth reading anyway, and I would encourage readers who want a Medieval with some “weight” to it to give this book a try – particularly if they don’t mind straying into the realm of straight fiction.
I've been at AAR since dinosaurs roamed the Internet. I've been a Reviewer, Reviews Editor, Managing Editor, Publisher, and Blogger. Oh, and Advertising Corodinator. Right now I'm taking a step back to concentrate on kids, new husband, and new job in law...but I'll still keep my toe in the romance waters.