Monday, November 21, 2011

Book Review: Lionheart by Sharon Kay Penman

From the New York Times-bestselling novelist, a stunning story of a great medieval warrior-king, the accomplished and controversial son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine: Richard, Coeur de Lion.

They were called 'The Devil's Brood,' though never to their faces. They were the four surviving sons of Henry Plantagenet and Eleanor of Aquitaine. With two such extraordinary parents, much was expected of them.

But the eldest-charming yet mercurial-would turn on his father and, like his brother Geoffrey, meet an early death. When Henry died, Richard would take the throne and, almost immediately, set off for the Holy Land. This was the Third Crusade, and it would be characterized by internecine warfare among the Christians and extraordinary campaigns against the Saracens. And, back in England, by the conniving of Richard's youngest brother, John, to steal his crown.

In Lionheart, Sharon Kay Penman displays her remarkable mastery of historical detail and her acute understanding of human foibles. The result is a powerful story of intrigue, war, and- surprisingly-effective diplomacy, played out against the roiling conflicts of love and loyalty, passion and treachery, all set against the rich textures of the Holy Land.

Synopsis courtesy of

My Review

4 Stars

When I learned earlier this year that Sharon Kay Penman's latest effort, Lionheart, was to be released in October, it became one of my most anticipated reads of the year.   While I've never been a fan of the title character, Richard I, the fact that the story picks up where Penman's wonderful Devil's Brood left off meant that it was a novel not to be missed.   

Having had such high hopes for this novel -- Penman's books have never let me down -- I was surprised to find my early impressions of it weren't overly positive.   While Penman's writing and historical detail are, as usual, top notch, I was more than a little bored by the start of the story.   I even set the book aside for a short while in the hopes my indifference to it was a result of my reading mood, but when I picked it back up again I still didn't connect with either the story or the characters.   Nevertheless, I stuck with the book in the hopes my initial impressions would change.   It wasn't until the 200 page mark, when the setting started to shift away from Europe and towards the Holy Land, that I became interested in the novel.  By the time Richard and his entourage were settled in the Holy Land I was hooked, and from that point forward did not want to put the book down.   

Despite its slow start, Lionheart provides yet another example of why Penman is considered a master within the historical fiction genre.   Penman's attention to historical detail and her commitment to sticking as close to known fact as possible -- her author's note indicates she only took a few minor liberties in Lionheart -- continues to amaze me.  This novel is not only entertaining, it is also highly informative.   The Third Crusade is not a period in history I'm overly familiar with, but Penman brings it to life for me in Lionheart.   The politics of the Third Crusade are at the forefront of this novel.   I hadn't realized the depth of enmity between Richard I and Philip II of France, and how their antagonistic relationship had such a profound effect on the Crusade.    

While regarded as one of history's greatest battle commanders, I've never much cared for Richard I since he is always characterized as having little interest in the welfare of England.  Penman's characterization of the monarch not only humanizes him, but also brings to light some of his possible motivations for remaining in the Holy Land whilst England was in crisis.   Although still not one of my favourite historical figures, Penman's view of Richard I has left me with a better understanding of him.  He is a figure I'd now like to learn more about.

Overall a great novel, Lionheart is sure to appeal to Penman's fan base, as well as readers of historical fiction interested in the Crusades.  

Richard I's story will continue in A King's Ransom, which will hopefully be released in 2012.