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Book Review: Falls the Shadow Sharon Kay Penman

FFalls the Shadow  (Welsh Princes, #2)alls the Shadow is the second book in The Welsh Princes series and mainly focuses on Simon de Montfort and Henry III (father of the future Edward Longshanks) – their relationship, families and the clash of wills and subsequent terrible conflict that arises between them and sweeps England and other countries in its wake. Parallel to their story is that of Leilo – Llewelyn ap Gruffyd, a young Welsh prince who suffers the alienation of his immediate family but is rewarded with the love and trust of his grandfather, Llewelyn Fawr, the man who united Wales against the British and achieved elusive peace – but for how long?

Beautifully told, the novel segues in point of view and place, taking the reader from the Welsh highlands to Westminster, to a particular castle in England, the Tower of London, and France, as well as, later, bloody battlefields. What I adore about Penman’s writing is that she brings these well-known (and some obscure) historical figures to life, painting them in rich and vivid detail. The women particularly, often rendered absent from the pages of history, burst from the novel, their passion, intelligence and sometimes vanity, as well as their commitment to their men, children, cause and country is fabulously explored.

Simon de Montfort, arguably, the central character of this novel, is sometimes painted as a brusque and cold commander by history or as a saint. In this book, he’s revealed as a deeply religious man, devoted to his wife, Nell (sister of Henry III) and family, and even though he has a wicked sense of humour, as someone who didn’t suffer fools gladly. That Henry III is perhaps the greatest fool of all (and in this novel, not simply in de Montfort’s eyes), causes constant strain and pressure as Henry makes poor decision after poor decision, costing lives, allegiances and honour.

Characters either love or loathe de Montfort and the kingdom is pretty much divided along lines of supporters of him or the king. Betrayal lurks in every corner, bribery and corruption are currency and who to trust and when becomes much more than a deadly game.

Spanning years, the book covers de Montfort’s meeting with young Nell (a widow who, at 15 swears herself to the church), their swift courtship and wedding and then years pass as sons are born to them and grow.

Likewise, Henry also raises a family, and the cousins become close; favourites are quickly identified and relationships develop, all against a backdrop of the huge schism growing between their parents and the kingdom’s disenchantment with the liege.

In the meantime, Henry makes inroads into Wales with the help of the cunning Marcher lords (the English aristocracy who owned lands on the borders of Wales and England and who were mostly related to Henry through marriage- which caused no end of resentment) and drives a wedge between Llewlyn Farr’s sons, leaving Wales in disarray and fighting over leadership. Out of this mess, young Leilo, now a man, rises to meet his destiny.

Torn between loyalty to the king and the rights of the men and women Henry rules, de Montfort has to make an important decision – one for which he could, potentially, pay a terrible price – one that, should it go wrong, will cost his family and their future as well.

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot (though those familiar with the history already know the tale), but I am in awe of the way in which Penman not only juggles perfectly the telling of history through fiction, but keeps the plot bubbling and the characters fascinating even when “what happens next? is foretold. It’s testimony to her skill as a story-weaver that you invest so heavily in the men and women who populate this tale.

Penman also has a knack for recreating the period – her rendering of life in medieval times – from the religiosity, to the food, dress, manners and interactions is remarkable. As character rides through the snows in Wales, or listens to the bells chiming throughout London, or smells the sweet scent of heather in the breeze from a field in north England, so too do you.

The battles that are described in this book, just like the daily rhythms of the peers and royal house, are also graphic and so very real. Blood, fear, violence, ridiculous bravery; the search for honour through death is represented unflinchingly. I know some other readers found these parts a little long if not tedious – I didn’t. I felt they were an essential part of the story – the price that had to be paid, the toll that’s exacted from these remarkable people who believed in an ideal and were prepared to sacrifice anything to see it achieved.

This is where Penman completely excels. She captures the essence of humanity through her words – in all our glory and shame, our false pride and fearlessness, our courage and spirit. She also manages to show flaws in the most noble of characters and strengths (even if it’s simply through the love he or she bears for a child) in the most weak or repugnant of individuals.

I finished this book and moved straight onto the last in the series, which, so far (I am almost halfway through) is equally magnificent. “They” say “truth” is stranger than fiction. When you have both brought together in such excellent hands, the combination is intoxicating and a reader of novels’ absolute pleasure.

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