Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Title: Here Be Dragons
Author: Sharon Kay Penman
Published: 1985, Ballantine
Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 8/10

This is a great big meaty historical novel and I loved almost all of it. The setting is Wales and England at the beginning of the 13th century. The heroine is Joanna, the baseborn daughter of Prince John--the much maligned younger brother of Richard the Lion Heart. My sister reminded me of one of our favorite childhood movies, Robin Hood, and the song "Prince John, the phony king of England." The author's portrayal of John is really interesting, because while he does do some horribly ruthless kingly things, he is a good father to Joanna--showing that (in this version of history, anyway) he did have some good qualities.

Joanna is sent at the age of 14 to marry Llewelyn, the most powerful of the Welsh princes. It is a political alliance that Joanna agrees to out of love of her father, but the marriage flourishes and she comes to love Llewelyn. Problems arise later when the peace between England and Wales is broken and Joanna's loyalty is torn between her father and her husband.

This is a monster of a book (about 700 pages) and I loved the first 400 pages or so. But then it just goes on and on about John's wars. He's fighting Wales, then the French, then the Scots, then his Barons try a coup, and then Wales again. And I was little bored. I mean, is that all they did back then? Fight wars? However, the last 100 or so pages recenter on Llewelyn and Joanna's story and it's great again.

I'm a little in love with Llewelyn. He is a fantastic character. He apparently went down in Welsh history as Llewelyn Fawr, Llewelyn the Great. And he is--brave and honorable, intelligent and pragmatic, a good leader who knows when to compromise and when to stand strong. Joanna was okay, but Llewelyn made this book for me.

This book is an example of really good historical fiction. All the characters are real historical figures, and the author creates their world with such vivid detail that (though this is cheesy) it really does bring them to life. The title is genius--Penman explains in the afterword that medieval cartographers, when they had drawn to the extent of their knowledge, would write "Here Be Dragons" in the area beyond (isn't that cool!). She means it as a symbol for the lack of understanding between the Welsh and the English.

This is the first in Penman's Welsh trilogy, followed by Falls the Shadow and The Reckoning. I want to read those, but I think I need to rest a little before I tackle them.

1 comment:

jmc said...

I loved Penman's Welsh trilogy, but at the same time they make me sad because know what happens in the end. Another very good book by Penman is The Sunne in Splendour, which is about Richard III.