The works of Sharon Kay Penman are close to my heart – Here Be Dragons is one of my favourite historical novels and I hold it responsible for my fascination with the 12th century (and I’m no medievalist). Penman’s books are rich, long and full of flavour for the past. Their reading is not to be rushed, it should be dallied over, and so it’s not surprising that their writing is equally painstaking and the publication of a new novel is an event. Lionheart is the latest, the first of two novels on Richard I (reigned 1189-1199), arguably the most fantastical of England’s kings and certainly its most charismatic.
Sharon Kay Penman states that she had preconceived ideas about Richard – his unsuitability for kingship, his irresponsibility and arrogance, and his disregard for England – but that through her research for the other Plantagenet novels, she came to see another Richard: the Lionheart who inspired his men, thousands of miles from home, who shared their suffering and dreams, who fought bravely, with a realistic strategy, and who, after all, was never an Englishman. While Penman accedes that Richard was, or became, a bad husband and that his heart wasn’t in England but in Aquitaine and on the battlefields of the Holy Land, she presents here the Lionheart that his men and family knew, not the one that history condemns. It’s refreshing to find him both flawed and very likeable.
Lionheart covers the Third Crusade, which was far from glorious. The vast dramatis personae of the novel highlights the problem facing Richard – the Saracens were more honourable than the French and Austrians on his own side, so honourable that he even knighted some of them while they sent Richard fruit chilled by snow when he was ill. With the future of Jerusalem’s royal family focused on a young woman, Isabella, who is married off from one rival faction to another, it would seem that all Saladin had to do was watch and wait. While the French abandoned the Crusade altogether, leaving their allies to support Richard in nothing but name, Richard was not able to direct the fighting where it counted. The Crusade was doomed; it was hot; there was disease; poisonous and irritating creatures; men were homesick; they saw dreadful things. Richard led from the front, often placing himself in danger, and inspiring great acts of courage from his followers – all resulting in the admiration of his enemy and chroniclers.
All this, Sharon Kay Penman evokes beautifully in a book where every page is a joy. From the outset, when we find ourselves experiencing the terror of a young girl, orphaned and shipwrecked and frightened, we are placed beside the witnesses and protagonists of history, whether they are Richard himself, his sister Joanna, the widowed Queen of Sicily, his young, brave and innocent bride Berengaria of Navarre, or the exciting and noble Henri of Champagne, the nephew of both kings of England and France. The perspective shifts wonderfully.
The style is not fast – instead, it is measured and deeply thought through. But Penman’s extremely careful prose places the reader directly in the heart of Sicily, Cyprus and in the tents, towns and castles of the dangerous and inhospitable Outremer. The fabrics, foods, drinks, sounds and smells of life on Crusade are brought before us in a way I haven’t experienced before in a novel of the Middle Ages. It’s a dangerous world but women share it with men, including Richard’s sister and bride from whom, almost unbelievably, he could not be parted. At times, I felt some frustration that we were kept back with the women but, elsewhere in the novel, women were banished from the frontline while we were spared nothing. This tension in narratives, though, is invaluable in creating the mood of the novel. Throughout the narrative is the reminder, constant in many of Penman’s novels, of how extraordinary the Plantagenets were and what a gift they are to a novelist as fine as this.
Lionheart is a throwback to the novels that Sharon Kay Penman has rewarded us with through thirty plus years of superb, eloquent fiction – these aren’t so much novels as chronicles. I’m fortunate to have read every one (can there be a better novel of medieval warfare than The Sunne in Splendour?) and I’ll make sure I read every one to come.
I read an American copy and the look of it was stunning. The beautiful cover was matched by the font, maps, typesetting, everything about it. I hope the UK edition out in the spring will be as good. If I were you, though, I wouldn’t wait. The conclusion to Richard’s story, A King’s Ransom, will follow.