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!

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Book Review: Women in the Middle Ages by Frances and Joseph Gies

I love anything written by this couple; always entertaining, always educational, they do their research, combine it with their sound knowledge of the era or people they are writing about and produce something that history buffs, writers, or just those with a healthy curiousity about the past will thoroughly enjoy.

Women in the Middle Ages is no exception. A concise book it starts with a working definition of the Middle Ages (around 600AD to the end of the Fourteenth Century) before explaining popular misconceptions and some facts about the role women played in these fraught and fascinating times. They then explain the primary models against which women were measured – Eve and MaWomen in the Middle Agesry – sinner and saint, mother and whore, basically. Reductive they might be and yet they set the framework against which women lived, worked, loved, worshipped, ruled, and died.

The second part explores specific women, using contemporary sources, in more detail. We are introduced to (or reacquainted with) Hildegarde of Bingen, one of the most highly educated and clever women of the Middle Ages, an Abbess; the magnificent Queen Blanche of Castille a canny ruler who, despite enemies seeking to capture her throne managed to rule beside her husband and later, as a regent, handling the power thrust upon her with courage and intelligence; Eleanor of Montefort, sister to Henry III, devoted mother, wife to the courtier and warrior Simon de Montefort (their relationship is beautifully and sympathetically explored by Sharon Kay Penman who, though working in fiction does extensive research and she paints a softer portrait of Eleanor), and someone very aware of and prepared to fight for her rights. We also meet Agnes Patiniere of Douai, a woman who lived in a city and who had a successful trade, negotiating the politics of the guilds. Then there’s Margherita Datini, an Italian woman who became literate later in life, helped run her husband’s business and avoided succumbing to the plague. Finally, there’s Margaret Paston, member of one of the most successful families of the Middle Ages who rose from crofters to wealthy landowners (and later, Earls) and who are survived by abundant correspondence (the book of their letters, The Pastons, is enthralling) that reveals their daily lives, enmities, private and more public relationships and even their ambitions for themselves and each other.

While it seems sad that there are so few women to draw on in order to explore their diverse roles over such a long stretch of time, when considering the division that occurred in medieval lives – men = public, women= private, and the fact most females were confined to domestic space, it’s fortunate we have anything. The Gies’ also ensure they compare and contrast the women they discuss in relation to place and class and draw analogies with literature (eg. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales) as well demonstrating how women’s role altered (for better and worse) over time.

The contradictions in women’s roles are evident in this book, as is how women worked within and against popular and religious expectations, how they managed, sometimes against impossible odds, to find and create their own spaces and lives – some more successful than others.

Overall, this was an interesting and enjoyable read.

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Book Review: The Reckoning by Sharon Kay Penman

Sometimes, it’s really difficult reading the novels of a writer whom you know takes great pains to be historically accurate while still telling a sweeping, dramatic and emotionally fraught tale. So it is with Penman who, in this last book of The Welsh Prince series, brings the story of the struggles of the Welsh prince, Llewelwyn, and the machinations of Edward Longshanks, King of England, to a close.

For those who know the history, you understand the ending is not a happy one and it’s this that makes the novel difficult reading. The tale of Llewelyn’s reign, his marriage, love, triumphs and losses, his turgid and troubled relationship with is brother, the complex Davyd, are all explored in wonderful, deep and moving ways. Likewise, Edward’s motivations, the relationship he has with not only his brother and cousins, but also his conscience, which appears to conveniently massage events and consequences to suit his purpose, are all told with such emotional truth, you both delight and ache for the characters and the futures that await them.

I adored this book – as I have all the others in this series and, indeed, by Penman. She is a historical novelist par excellence – in that she manages to balance both the history and the story-telling so very well. Lost in the chaos and turmoil of the era, the bloodshed, treachery and religiosity, the story is also laced with romance, honour, adventure (including pirates!) and betrayal.

As is usual with Penman’s work, she brings the female characters (those often diminished or elided by history) particularly to life, representing them as strong, brave, fully-rounded women who while they may not be on the frontline in the physical sense as battles and politics rage around them, nonetheless form the backbone and emotional rearguard upon which their men (husbands, brothers, fathers, cousins and sons) will rely to succour them.

From Ellen to Eleanor to Nell, they are three-dimensional, amazing women who loved their men – faults and all – and in the end, it’s they who bear the heavy cost of their loyalty and love.

A superb conclusion to a tumultuous and possibly lesser known period of history, I cannot recommend this series (or any of Penman’s novels) highly enough.

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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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Book Review: The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman

The old adage “history is always written by the victors” holds true – and when it comes to recounting the infamous War of the Roses – the ongoing fight between the houses of York and Lancaster and their bloody battle for the English throne in the fifteenth century – we have the saying enacted. For in the years after Henry VII took the throne, the Tudors (backed by Lancastrians) made a huge effort to both erase and alter the way the two York monarchs: Edward IV and his brother, Richard the III, were remembered. Documents were burned, other were b=changed, and new versions of events quickly scribed and distributed. While Edward was constructed as a man who was powerful, selfish and a womaniser (among other much worse things), it’s his younger brother who is served the cruellest turn by Tudor writers and their re-fashioning of history. Just as Shakespeare turned Richard III into a monstrous hunchback living in the shadows, murdering, plotting and betraying, so too the Tudor historians would have posterity believe that the Duke of Gloucester was a man capable of murdering children in cold blood, breaking oaths to family, poisoning his wife and, basically, any callous, unethical act that one could conceive. That these posthumous interpretations don’t accord with remaining contemporary accounts never seemed to disturb too many and so Richard III has, mostly, been remembered as a King best forgotten – a terrible blight in the royal lineage – and this despite evidence to the contrary.

It was towards the contradictory evidence and contemporary sources of the time that Sharon Kay Penman turned to when she decided to revisit the era and the man and present to us The Sunne in Splendour, a remarkable work that redresses some of the imbalances in the York and Lancaster story.

Covering the period September 1459 to June 1492, and purporting to be a novel about Richard III, Sunne is as much about his older brother Edward and his rise to power and unexpected death at the age of 40, as it is about Richard. A turbulent period full of internecine strife between noble houses that saw England pretty much divided along the lines of Lancastrians or Yorkist supporters, Penman revisions the history of the times and, in doing so  gives us an accomplished, gripping and amazing tale of England and Europe in the late Middle Ages. Sunne explores the politics, swift and terrible  battles, illness, the joy and horror of childbirth, death, faith and, most importantly, the people and the personal relationships behind, beside and on the English throne (and French and other) during this time.

Commencing while Richard is still a child in a large family, the novel allows us to see the changing, confusing world of war, power and petty politics, from his perspective. By introducing Richard while he’s still so young, the reader is also given the opportunity to see and understand him through other character’s eyes and we’re given a glimpse of his formative years and a context for why he becomes the man he does. Contrary to the ugly received portrait, Richard is presented as a young man who, despite the tragedy that affects his early life, is rather an idealist. He’s loyal, ethical, honest, and a victim of his own capacity for forgiveness and occasional flare of temper. That’s not to say that Richard is perfect – far from it. Part of the joy of reading Penman is she exposes characters’ weaknesses and emotional and psychological fragilities as much as she does their strengths – but she always places them within a broad social and individual context so we’re given insights and understanding as opposed to simply judgement. Richard isn’t spared this type of searing and sensitive examination and nor are many other characters – male and female.

At times a breath-taking picture of war and bloodshed and the sacrifices men and women make for power, the novel is also a love story in the grand tradition. Central to this is the tale of Richard and his beloved, Anne Neville – his childhood companion, cousin and later, wife. The other grand love story, though one that’s tainted by the strong and oft-times unpleasant and haughty personalities of those at the core, is that of King Edward and Elizabeth Woodville. Both renown for their striking physical beauty (Elizabeth was considered one of the most gorgeous of English queens – even those who despised her family, could not help but acknowledge her beauty), Penman describes not only their often dysfunctional relationship, but the mutual understanding and deep feelings (and attraction) they bore for each other and which transcended behaviours and actions that would have destroyed a lesser couple as well. Elizabeth particularly is represented as a mostly heartless character who remained aloof when it came to her children and those closest to her and who did whatever she could to retain control – over her life and that of her children’s as well as the reigns of authority. It’s only much later in the book that the reader begins to understand her motivations, her drive to retain what little dignity and power she can muster, that her earlier machinations are cast in a different and more sympathetic light.

But for all the other amazing characters that sprinkle this very long novel –  from Edward and Richard’s other brother, the foolish and possibly mad pawn, George Clarence, who is alternately charming, cruel and capable of great treachery, to Richard’s steadfast and not so loyal friends, Will Hastings, Jack Howard, the Duke of Buckingham and many others, including a host of Archbishops, Mayors, foreign kings and the ever-burdened and changeable populations of London, York, English towns and countryside – it’s Richard whose belief in social justice, capacity for great kindness and stern retribution as well as unconditional love, who shines.

There are not many novelists who can grip a reader for nine hundred plus pages and, while it took me a while to read this book, it’s because I didn’t want to miss one word of this sumptuous, heart-breaking, triumphant and tragic tale about such a significant period of English history. As I was reading, I couldn’t help but think how a fantasy writer would be hard-pressed to invent such a plot, conceive a host of characters and their actions like these. The devil is in the detail, and detail is what Penman has provided – from meals, fabrics, weapons, physical descriptions of characters, buildings, battles and weapons, to letters, dispatches, prayers, songs, dates and times – without sacrificing pace or story. This really is historical fiction at its finest: a magnificent read that recreates thirty-three years in livid and loving words, bringing to sumptuous and gory life the time the York’s shone – the moments when they were the sunne in splendour – before quickly waning under the might of the Lancasters and Tudors and the treachery of those they thought allies.

This was a treat in every sense of the word. It plunges you into the period and does not release you until the very last page. For anyone who loves history, quality fiction and a fine read – this is the book for you.

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