Pros: Terrific storytelling, memorable characters, and lots of history. Bliss!
There are some authors out there that when they publish a new book, everything else I am reading gets set aside so that I can devour the latest release. One of those authors is novelist Sharon Kay Penman, whose novels on the twelfth and thirteenth century have kept me riveted for more than two decades now.
With Lionheart, Ms. Penman takes on the demanding task of exploring Richard the Lionheart, one of the more complicated and controversial figures of English history. Many historians and novelists have stayed with the simplistic notion that Richard was a marauding bloodthirsty butcher whose sexual habits were not to be spoken of. Namely, a pretty two dimensional character that has stuck in most people's minds. But Ms. Penman is one of those authors who takes a very different approach, digging into what is actually known, and then doing her best to bring the people alive for the reader. It's one of the reasons why I keep returning to her books again and again, and enjoying them anew every time.
The novel opens with a very brief section exploring the death of King Henry II, abandoned and broken-hearted and alone in his castle of Chinon. Richard, his eldest surviving son, quickly seizes control of the throne, and consolidates his power. He manages to pacify his other living brother, John, and frees his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, from her captivity, and starts about fulfilling his vow to go on Crusade to the Holy Land -- Outremer -- and free Jerusalem from the Saracens. As with most plans on paper it looks to be fairly easy.
The other king who has vowed to take the cross and fight is Richard's rival, Philippe of France, seething and envious of Richard's prowess on the battlefield, his fighting capabilities, and his popularity. Most of all, it's the fact that Richard has most of France under his control due to his vast inheritance from his parents that sticks in Philippe's craw the most.
And then there is another of Henry and Eleanor's children to consider -- Joanna, the Queen of Sicily. Married off at very young age, Joanna has grown up in the sunny, exotic cities of Palermo and Messina, turning into a beautiful young woman. Her life is a quiet one, where every wish is fulfilled, save for a living child to love and care for. Her husband is much older, and in addition to his wife, he keeps a harem of Saracen women to amuse him, a fact that Joanna bears with but not without a pang of jealousy. When her husband suddenly dies, Joanna finds herself a prisoner of a usurping king and no one to help her.
Finally, there is Berengaria of Navarre, a pretty young Spanish princess that Richard met some years earlier, and had taken a liking to. Mind that word, liking, not quite loving. While Richard is assembling his troops, ships and money, his mother, Eleanor, makes the trek over the Pyrenees, determined that Richard is going to be married and fathering a brood of children -- and soon. Her plan is to fetch Berengaria and bring her to wherever Richard is. Berengaria is rather protected and very naive, and at first she is dazzled by everything and scarcely says a word as she and Queen Eleanor scale the Alps and make a journey down to the island of Sicily where their lives will be entangled with Richard, Joanna and Philippe's.
There are setbacks, naturally, including an encounter with the Emperor of Cyprus, a ruthless man who isn't above threatening women to get what he wants, and most of all, the grim reality of Outremer. Outremer is a seething collection of native-born Frankish lords who know the reality of life there, which is nothing like what the newly arriving Crusaders imagine. Some adapt, most die, and a few cannot let go of their own rivalries and jealousies. Illness claims more than warfare, and the harsh climate will break anyone down. It all becomes a question of survival, with the prize of Jerusalem just dangling out of reach over the next hill...
What can I say? I found this to be a wonderful novel, far different than most of the ones that I have read about Richard the Lionheart and the third Crusade. This is a Richard that is learning painfully and quickly the roles of being king and husband, and not always succeeding. He's the greatest soldier in Christendom, but he's a ruthless man, willing to sacrifice whatever it takes to win. And for Richard, that means always winning. He's not too good at keeping his alliances either, and having to cope with Philippe is not the easiest of tasks, and those mistakes will come to haunt him later.
This too is a very different look at Philippe of France. Forget the urban, suave Philippe you saw in The Lion in Winter; this is a Philippe who knows he's second-rate compared to Henry II and Richard and that fact has eaten him up with jealousy and misery. He hates the Holy Land, and wants nothing more to see Richard preferably dead, and himself back in France making as much trouble as he can for John. It's a far cry from what most historical writers do with him, and here I found him very believable, and felt more than a little pity for him.
Most novelists ignore Joanna and Berengaria's roles in the life of the Lionheart, but not Ms. Penman. Here she takes the gamble of telling their stories, and it was wonderful to read. Joanna is just as strong-willed as her mother, but with a measure of reality to her, while Berengaria may look fragile but has a strong ability for resilience. I loved reading about both of them, and found myself not just believing these two characters, but also actively cheering them on. Berengaria I really enjoyed, finding her to be not just a cardboard cutout of the beautiful princess type, but finally freed of silliness and dimwittedness that most authors tack onto her.
There are plenty of other, more minor characters here as well. Some are historical, such as the de Lusignan brothers, and Balian of Ibelin, whom I hope that Ms. Penman will take the time to write about. There are others that are fictional, such as Morgan ap Rannulf, which sharp-eyed characters will recognize from the early trilogy about Henry and Eleanor, and Lady Mariam, a half-Saracen lady-in-waiting to Joanna.
The writing here is brisk, full of encounters and emotions that feel right for the place and time, filled with all sorts of little details that make the story come alive. The exploits of Richard in the Holy Land may sound fantastical, but they really did happen, and Ms. Penman's research into the stories are spot on. What I like is that while she isn't afraid to invent to carry over a story a little, the basic facts are there, all drawn from contemporary sources, both European and Arab, and comes to some very surprising conclusions. Most of the reasoning behind her decisions are given in her author's note at the end of the book, and please do not read that before you finish the book. It will give you an added punch, so don't ruin it for yourself.
There has been a lot of heated debate in recent decades as to whether Richard was a homosexual or not. What I found in here made me think, and it will be interesting to see what plays out in the second volume of this story, The King's Ransom. If you've read other books by Ms. Penman, this one dovetails neatly into the events of The Devil's Brood, and Here Be Dragons, without any backtracking or too much explainitis.
Two things did bother me a bit in this one. There was some anti-Semitism here and there, fortunately brief. While I knew it did happen, and it was integral to the story, I did find it very unpleasant to read. However, it really was how the world was viewed by our medieval ancestors, and so I could accept it, however vile it seems to most of the world today. The other was the overuse of having Eleanor being described in awe-inspiring terms every time she appeared on the scene. Yes, I know that she had reached semi-divine status by this point in her life, but I didn't need to have it pointed out all of the time.
In any case, this was a terrific novel to read, and well worth the wait. It does take some time for Ms. Penman's novels to appear on the shelves. However, they are worth the wait and the time to wade through them. They are smart, intelligent stories that tend to look at overlooked parts of the medieval world, or overworked stories of the varied kings of England. In any case, I am looking forward to the next installment of Richard, Berengaria, Joanna and Philippe's stories and give this one a big smacking five star rating. It just doesn't get much better than this.
Very much recommended.
Sharon Kay Penman Novels
Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine Trilogy
When Christ and All His Angels Slept
Time and Chance
The Devil's Brood
Richard the Lionheart
Lionheart -- you are here
The King's Ransom -- forthcoming
The Queen’s Man Series:
The Queen’s Man
Cruel as the Grave
Prince of Darkness
The Welsh Princes Trilogy:
Here Be Dragons
Falls the Shadow
The Sunne in Splendour
Once again, many thanks to the Books CL Pestyside for putting this title in the database for me!
Sharon Kay Penman
2011; A Marion Wood Book, P.G. Putnam and Sons