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.