When you pick up a Sharon Kay Penman book, you know you’re not only in the hands of a masterful storyteller, but someone with such a deep respect, passion and knowledge of the era she’s writing in as well, that the past comes to life on every single page. So it is with A King’s Ransom, the sequel to Lionheart, which continues the saga of Richard, Coeur de Lion, by focussing on his amazing journey home from the Crusades.
Richard’s quest to seize control of his lands and take up his rightful position and the power it grants him as King, has been undermined by both his treacherous brother and the duplicitous French king, Philippe, making his journey home even more urgent and essential.
Each leg of the journey is described in detail, allowing us to travel beside Richard as he endures the stuff of legend. His journey home literally becomes Homeric, casting him as an Odysseus, one who like his ancient forebear, is beset by storms, ship wreck, illness, forced separation of his men and ghastly monsters in the form of the Holy Roman Emperor who imprisons Richard and his knights and refuses to release him unless an outrageous ransom is paid.
It’s not only Richard’s trials we follow but also those of his sweet wife, Berengaria, his magnificent mother, Eleanor of Acquitane and his sassy sister, Joanna. They too have their own tests of endurance – whether it’s the conditions under which they’re forced to live and travel, or the torment of not knowing what’s happened to their beloved husband, son and brother and an uncertain future.
In this book, we also see Richard, who can be alternately courageous, foolhardy, loyal, irrational and bad-tempered, wielding the statecraft he clearly learnt from his mother’s knee. Richard is both honest and a wonderful speaker, who brandishes words with the same skill he does the sword. A charismatic and natural born leader, the chapters in Germany particularly are thrilling as you sense the tide shifting, finally, in Richard’s favour.
It’s only once Richard and Berengaria are able to reunite that a different side of the king is shown. Penman does the most wonderful job of exploring the reasons for Richard’s seemingly aberrant behaviour and describing his wife’s acute pain at her treatment. This is all eruditely and convincingly explained in the Author’s Notes – which are sensational in themselves. I love Penman’s author’s notes.
The last chapters of this hefty book are unputdownable as the main characters’ lives reach conclusions that, even if you know your history and the outcome, are alternately devastating, heart-wrenching and very gratifying. I wept, sighed, cried out in protest and went through a roller-coaster of emotions – and I knew what was going to happen!!! This is a testimony to the world and people Penman has created, the way she’s transformed historical figures into living breathing people the reader cares deeply about – or loathes! When a particularly nasty character gets their comeuppance, you can’t help but feel gratified as well.
This was a magnificent book, a rich and vibrant retelling of a man known to us through history and legend. What I also loved was the way the other characters in his life where given moments where they too took centre stage, particularly some of the women. I wept for them most of all.
What a tale, what a writer. More please Sharon!