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Archive for the ‘Sharon Kay Penman’ Category

Sharon Penman  is the author of the 2 HUGE massive books I read over last year. Her mission is simply to write history as a story, inventing dialogue and details, but keeping the factual plots unchanged. It is challenging, to say the least, trying to keep the vast list of characters in mind–who is whose bastard son/whose mistress is the queen’s favorite lady-in-waiting sort of thing. NOT the most scintillating of writers. Quote from an Amazon review: “Though the prose tends to lumber along like a medieval oxcart, historical fiction readers who love the period probably won’t mind”. Which is to say, it’s workmanlike and gets the job done, but there is no point where you sit back and marvel at the luminous prose or are moved by the deep understanding of humanity. Still, GREAT stories! And the history is truly fascinating. It describes the calamitous battles between Stephen and Maude (AKA Matilda) for the crown of England (this is Brother Cadfael’s time, and how much more entertaining–not to mention, SHORTER–those books were than these) in the middle of the 12th century–starting with the White Ship disaster, in which the heir to the the throne, William, was drowned. Many stories about the White Ship–including that compelling one about building cathedrals, by, by…..[quick gooWhite ship disastergle]..Follett! Pillars of the Earth! Follett included some business about the ship disaster as a pivotal plot point. He does plots well, does Mr. Follett. That was a book I found totally engrossing, if a TAD too violent. Anyway, William’s sister, Maud/Matilda (one is the Latin version of the other, but alas, there are many Maud/Matilda’s in the story, and it is not always easy to remember which is which) becomes the heir to the throne, but a large contingent of English nobles refuse to accept a woman, hence the ghastly wars. Useless, destructive, impoverishing–as are all wars. The second book I read is actually the 4th in the series–about Richard Lionheart (see review here) who is Maude’s grandson. I think. Complicated, very.
Anyway, I plodded on, and was interested enough to finish both. The name of the first, When Christ and His Saints Slept, is a direct quote from a despairing contemporary account of what was called simply, “the Anarchy”. Hard to imagine how awful was the lot of the ordinary man, with predatory bands of monstrous and heartless mercenaries roaming the countryside. And the punishing taxes, and the terrible weather–the mini ice age began around then (according to one account, at least).

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Kings and Queens

Lionheart, by Sharon Penman, is a continuation of her huge series, telling the story of  the Plantagenets—Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II, and their vast brood of contumelious and rebellious children. Her specialty is keeping to factual history, but adding color, details, conversations—everything that makes it a story you want to read. And, what a story! Though, I tried starting with the first book (When Christ and His Saints Slept)—and shamefully, it is still on my bedside table. I was unable to keep all the many, many characters straight in my mind, and so let other, less weighty books take its place: Georgette Heyer! Compton MacKenzie! But then, had to have something to listen to, and found that Lionheart (which is the 4th and last in the Plantagenet series) was not only available on Audible, but was THIRTY HOURS + of listening! Well, of course I downloaded it at once, and have been listening to it since.

It starts well, on a boat of crusaders travelling to the Holy Lands via Sicily, and moves to the Kingdom of Sicily, described as a garden of Eden, ruled over by a handsome king and his lovely queen (Joanna, one of the vast brood mentioned above). However, King William dies, and the country is plunged into confusion, resolved (for the time being) by the arrival of Henry Lionheart, on his way to the Holy Lands. The crusades loom large in these stories, and it is hard to understand how truly compelling this cause was to all these men and women. The incredible loss of life, treasure, and time caused by this obsessive dedication to regaining Jerusalem—lost to Christendom by some truly imbecilic strategies of the former ruler of that city—is startling to the modern mind. But, there it is, it was a given, and the kings and queens and their vassals strove to achieve this blessed goal. Penman tries hard to make us at least accept this, and I think does pretty well. I have now got well into the book, and am still in Sicily, to which Eleanor of Aquitaine has just arrived, having travelled over the Alps–bringing his bride to her beloved son, who is wintering in Messina, ready to sail over to the Holy Land once it’s safe to take sail, after the winter storms. I realize that I keep thinking of the Mediterranean as that little inland sea, but of course, it is no such thing, being a mighty and dangerous body of water, which has wrecked thousands of ships and drowned millions of people. Odysseus learned to respect it, over the 10 years it took him to travel from Troy to Ithaca.

A fascinating story, which I am still in the midst of. So many people, so many intertwined lives! These daughters of kings, bred to a career of being wife to some political ally, often shipped off across the world as young girls, all alone in alien lands—never to see mother and father and family again—sad and difficult lives they had. And often, dying in childbirth.

We are lucky, what with the state of medicine, and the society that allows us to become educated and have careers other than being wives and mothers. But Eleanor of Aquitaine, she had quite a time of it.

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