Unfortunately, the plot of this book was give given away in Charlaine Harris’ latest book, “Midnight Crossroad”, so I already knew a lot of what would happen. That I still enjoyed the book is a tribute to how well written it is and how focused it is on the development of Lily Bard.
The “Champion” of the title is a body-builder who is murdered in the gym Lily uses. The plot focuses around the actions of a secretive white supremacist group that has sprung up in Shakespeare and the people who are trying to stop them.
Part of the strength of the book comes from the fact that Lily is cast neither as Civil Rights Activist nor as a vigilante but as a woman trying to get by without drawing attention to herself but unable to turn away when people are being hurt.
Lily sees herself as being able to do two things well: clean and fight. She sees a great deal of what is going on around her but does not comment on it. She is more likely to offer help or violence than words. She does what she thinks should be done and she refuses to back down from those who threaten her.
But Lily is not a hard-boiled action-hero. The book shows her compassion in helping the sick and comforting the dying, her empathy with those who have been hurt, and her reflex to intervene when violence is being done to those who can’t defend themselves.
Lily doesn’t set out, Miss Marple, style to investigate the white supremacist group but her job and her social contacts in Shakespeare mean she is in the wrong place at the wrong time often enough to be drawn into the action.
There are some powerful scenes in this book. For me, the most powerful describes Lily’s involvement in a bombing and its aftermath. This is an up close and personal view of what this kind of violence does to those involved in it. It is beautifully and convincingly written.
The book confronts some difficult small town topics: racial tension; the reaction to a promiscuous white woman who has sex with, among others, a black man; Christian fundamentalist who believe that God speaks through them and that those who oppose them are not just wrong but evil; men who attack women; packs of men who commit violence; corrupt police officers who turn a blind eye or even lend a hand; the social mores that mean that none of this gets discussed in polite society. I don’t think it sets out to be a politically correct, liberal book. These issues are filtered primarily by Lily’s view of the world, not political dogma. Lily believes in evil, expects little of other people, hates bullies and bigots, sees promiscuity as an act of stupid carelessness because it makes the woman so vulnerable, and understands at a bone deep level, that victims are not responsible for the harm done to them.
In this book, Lily has started to understand that she is not strongly enough attracted to either of the men in the first book to be more than friends with them. That she wants to maintain that friendship and build others with some of the women around her, shows a desire to expand the narrow life she had been living. The arrival of stranger (yes, he is tall, dark and handsome) with a past as troubled and complex as her own, gives her someone new to value and changes her priorities in ways that drive the plot in interesting directions.
The only thing I would change in the book is the prologue. I often find these things irritating because they seem to imply that I will only read a book if I’m shown in the first few pages that something dramatic is going to happen real soon, honest. This particular prologue adds little to the book. The information it gives could have been presented with more skill and more context later. I’d have preferred to have done without it.
But that’s a small niggle. I enjoyed the book a great deal. By the end of it, I liked Lily when previously I had only admired her. Her world and her relationships have become real to me and I want to know more.
There are three more novels in the series. I feel a Lily Bard fest coming on.