A King’s Ransom by Sharon Kay Penman

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, A King's Ransomwhich 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!

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Comments: No Comments

Book Review: Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives

Searching for a book that could provide a general overview of the Middle Ages, I found Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives. Yes, it’s he of Monty Python fame and, in the illustrated version of this book, he poses in costume for each of the various life-roles into which the book is divided. Delightfully written, it explores the diverse period of almost six hundred years commonly referred to as ‘Medieval times’ examining life, death and everything in-between from a range of angles and points of view. As mentioned earlier, chapters focus on specific roles over this period such as ‘knight’, ‘monk’, ‘damsel’, ‘minstrel’, ‘king’ and ‘peasant’ to name a few. Jones also examines the origin of various myths such as Robin Hood, and presents the quite radical notion that outlaws were essential to effective governance during this time (the argument is a persuasive one!). Covering wars, religious beliefs and attitudes, secular ideologies, sex and professional and personal relationships, the book is packed with well-known facts, witticisms and some wonderful vignettes (eg. How a minstrel changed the world at the Battle of Hastings), and explanations such as why a particular branch of monks don’t wear underpants. Seeking to explain and debunk many of the myths and stereotypes that exist about the Middle Ages and the people that lived throughout this turbulent period, Jones does a stellar job. But, it is an overview and quite broad and sweeping and while it explains, for example, that Richard the Lionheart only spent six months of his ten year reign in England, it still adheres to the predominant view that the man was a bastard without looking at some of the revisionist work that has been done. This occurs a few times, where one side only about specific roles or famous individuals or even myths or tasks is given and other interpretations are shunted to the side. But that’s fine: this is, after all, Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives as the title says and he’s well within in his rights to provide his version. A damn fine one it is too that I enjoyed very much! There is also a BBC series based on this (or vice-a-versa) which I will now make a point of tracking down.

Tags: , , ,

Comments: No Comments