I’m not a huge stickler for historical accuracy. It’s better when you can trust the author’s research, but I can bear having my stories romanticized a little. There are two extremes, however, that I can’t stand: first, when the history is rewritten for the purpose of grinding a writer’s particular ideological axe; or second, and conversely, when all of the realistic historical content is airbrushed out of the story to make empty-headed romance. Historical fiction about royals often falls into one trap or the other and so I approach it with skepticism.
That’s the long way of saying that friends have been recommending Sharon Kay Penman to me for years, but I’ve always put off trying her work. I finally took the leap with the first of her books about Welsh princes, 1985’s Here Be Dragons, and I’m glad I did. I’ll be back for more.
Dragons follows three pivotal thirteenth-century characters. King John grows up in the enormous Plantagenet shadow of his father, his brother Richard the Lionheart, and most of all his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine. Perhaps it is this shadow that leads him to extremes as a king, perhaps it is the diminishing power of the king in the times when he lives, perhaps he has moral failures–whatever the reasons, his reign is ill-fated (but his failures give us the Magna Carta) and Penman catalogs this beautifully.
John marries his beloved daughter Joanna off to the Welsh prince Llewelyn as a means of keeping Llewelyn under control, but also because he admires the prince and thinks the two will make a good match. Despite initial bumps, the pair do make a strong marriage, but Llewelyn is still ambitious, and John’s continual push to expand his power and need for proof of loyalty from others forces even his supporters toward rebellion. Joanna is caught between her two great loves: her father and her husband.
In a lesser writer’s hands, this would quickly degenerate into sappy melodrama, but Penman’s characters are marvelous and she gives history real depth. Even her villains are sympathetic and Joanna and Llewelyn simply leap right off the page. Yes, it’s a romantic treatment of the history, but it works.
If you enjoy Here Be Dragons, you can continue this saga with Falls the Shadow and The Reckoning.
Check the WRL catalog for Here Be Dragons