The Winter Crown picks up where The Summer Queen left off--Eleanor of Aquitaine has married Henry of Anjou, soon to be Henry II of England after receiving an annulment of her marriage with Louis of France. Far from being the glittering experience of co-rule Eleanor may have envisioned, she soon finds herself almost continuously pregnant as Henry takes care of his vast domains. Eleanor is never shy and retiring, however, and even with her numerous children, she gives Henry a run for his money in both personality and politics. What could have been a time of her life that would be easily glossed over comes alive in the capable storytelling hands of Elizabeth Chadwick; she brings Eleanor's determination, heartbreak, and haughtiness to life in ways that will have you cheering her on even when she could possibly be wrong.
I was absolutely swept away into Eleanor's world with The Winter Crown. The relationship between Eleanor and Henry is fraught with temper, both good and bad; you can feel the sparks fly whenever they are together, yet I never got the sense that Eleanor particularly liked Henry except for what he could bring her...and vice versa. Still, when his affair with Rosamund de Clifford is revealed, I could feel the humiliation and despair Eleanor tried to hide; even when she treated him horribly, I could still empathize with her. More moving, though, is the emotion Eleanor had to swallow at the early loss of her daughters to marriages for alliances; it's not something that is often discussed, being seen as a trial women and children had to endure during the era. Add in the violent times, including the death of Thomas Beckett, and the degeneration of the relationship between not only Eleanor and Henry, but between Henry and their sons, and you have a story that makes fact read like fiction in the best ways possible.
Whenever I read anything by Elizabeth Chadwick, I'm reminded that there are few historical fiction authors who can transport you into the times quite as thoroughly and as seamlessly as she does. Eleanor being one of my personal heroines, I'm particularly pleased with how she is displayed in The Winter Crown: she's a real person, capable of both subterfuge and assertiveness, but with a human side that translates across the centuries. With the end of The Winter Crown, I'm left hanging and waiting on The Autumn Throne. I feel confident that I will love the close of Eleanor's story as much as I have the first two thirds.