Continuing my Weekly Novel Recommendation series, it’s time to share a little love for everything ever written by Sharon Kay Penman. Her historical fiction novels give the sense that Penman herself has experienced the troubled times of Richard the Lionheart. Even if you don’t particularly enjoy historical fiction, Penman writes very human novels with a relatable understanding of emotional depth and complexity.
Here Be Dragons has particularly captured my heart. It’s one of those stories I think about in my daily life, long after closing the book and bidding a temporary farewell to Eleanor of Aquitaine, King John, and Prince Llywelyn.
The tale begins with Llywelyn ap Iowerth, or Llywelyn the Great, and his boyish pride as he grapples with living in England as a Welshman. Throughout the novel, we witness his return to Wales as it coincides with the tangled lives of King Henry and Queen Eleanor, and their children, or “eaglets” in the 13th century. Ultimately, Llywellyn marries Joanna, King John’s daughter. From that point on, the plot largely spins around their marriage, and their entangled loyalties.
Based on historical records, Llywelyn and Joanna’s relationship was a complex but loving one. Penman avoids all the clichés of a typical romance by focusing on how these two characters manage to stay together, and stay in love, amidst torn loyalties and a time wrought with bloodshed and deceit.
Although I’d never suggest accepting historical fiction as fact, Penman examines history with the precision of a historian, and describes it with the brilliance of a storyteller. She also compares her novel to historical fact in the back of the book, as well as describes where fact and fiction meld, and why she altered any historical plot points.
The novel quite literally changed my life – I hiked an entire mountain in Northern Wales because of Penman’s irresistible descriptions. Read Here Be Dragons – and visit Northern Wales if you can – you won’t regret it!
Have you read any of Penman’s work? What were your thoughts?