Friday, March 2, 2012

Here Be Dragons

"Thirteenth-century Wales is a divided country, ever at the mercy of England’s ruthless, power-hungry King John. Llewelyn, Prince of North Wales, secures an uneasy truce by marrying the English king’s beloved illegitimate daughter, Joanna, who slowly grows to love her charismatic and courageous husband. But as John’s attentions turn again and again to subduing Wales---and Llewelyn---Joanna must decide where her love and loyalties truly lie.
The turbulent clashes of two disparate worlds and the destinies of the individuals caught between them spring to life in this magnificent novel of power and passion, loyalty and lies. The book that began the trilogy that includes Falls the Shadow and The Reckoning, Here Be Dragons brings thirteenth-century England, France, and Wales to tangled, tempestuous life."

Honestly, I don't generally read so very much historical fiction, but since the start of this blog I've been all over that genre like a blister on a plague victim (too graphic? sorry). And then Sharon K. Penman walked in and blew my mind.

This is the first split-perspective book I've ever read that I did not at one point toss aside in exasperation at yet another unwanted perspective shift. Generally when authors choose to switch between two different character viewpoints to tell concurrent story lines, the story feels uneven. One character's plot will invariably be more compelling than the other and I find myself resenting the second plot line and investing zero emotional effort into its characters. To say Penman pulled it off would be an understatement. She rocked it. I never minded when the scene changed to Wales from England or to England from France. I cared just as much for Llewellyn as I did for Joanna before their stories joined, and whenever King John entered the page I ate it up. Is it wrong that I loved him best?

And how could I not? Penman's treatment of John was nothing short of genius. The man has been vilified for centuries now, and even his contemporaries hated him. Unless they didn't. Unless they were his daughter or son. Unless they saw how viciously, unrepentantly clever he was. Unless they loved him. It would have been all too easy to let John be a caricature, to paint him as the mustache twirling villain or the misunderstood champion of the common man. But he was neither and both of those, and Penman breathed life into that dichotomy. She showed us John from the moment of his first betrayal to his final moments of dying alone and betrayed. She didn't gloss over his more heinous sins or sweep his vindictiveness under the table. But when the curtain closed on his life, I chocked up a bit. True, he did some blatantly horrible things in that life for which not even his daughter could fully forgive him. And yet he was compelling, daring, generous, and so very, very clever.

This book is thick and full to the brim with historic detail. Penman chose an ambitious timeline to fit into a single novel. Decades of historical intrigue and wars should have made this tomb unremittingly boring. Her list of characters along should have sunk the ship. But it didn't, because she's oh so very good at what she does. She wrote it as a sort of compilation of vignettes. Short scenes that manage to tell us everything we need to know and not bog us down with unnecessary filler. We see glimpses of the main characters rather than drawn out sagas of them. Here Llewellyn is starting his first campaign for Wales, and there little Joanna sits trying desperately to please a mother who hates her. We do not need to hear about every battle Llewellyn fights or every week Joanna manages to survive, the glimpse is enough. That is perhaps why her characters seemed so real. Penman chose her moments well, each chapter was like another thread in a complex tapestry that, when you stood back and looked at the whole, was stunning.

I like a little romance in my literature, and Penman delivered that nicely. How refreshingly new, too, to read a love story that lasts decades rather than months! Most romantic plots rely on a few sighs of unrequited love or romantic obstacles that must first be overcome before a single moment of epiphany-like bliss is reached. Not this time. Joanna's relationship with Llewellyn lasted more than twenty years and was a complex thing, fraught with troubles and joy both. When the eventual (SPOILERS!) adultery happened, she had me in tears more than once for both of them.

Another reader posted elsewhwere about not wanting to give the author too much credit since, let's be honest, she didn't come up with the plot on her own. It's history! Wikipedia basically did the work for her. Really? REALLY? Let me introduce you to King John, honey. I hear he has some lovely dungeons.

Rating: Five our of five troths plighted.

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