Welsh Princes #1: Here Be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman

Read: 18 March, 2010

Joanna, King John’s illigitimate daughter, is married to prince Llywelyn Fawr of Wales to secure an alliance. But John didn’t count on his daughter falling in love. When the relations between the two men start to deteriorate, Joanna is caught between her love for her father and her love for her husband.

As Wikipedia points out, one of the draws of Here Be Dragons is that it’s virgin territory; there are very few novels out there about historical Wales and, I confess, it was a milieu that I knew almost nothing about.

The historical aspects of the novel were fabulous, but it did occasionally cross into the territory of romance. Fair enough, I realize that many do like that sort of thing, but I found it rather boring and frustrating. Apparently, it’s a staple of the romance genre that people who are in love absolutely refuse to communicate with each other and, instead, simply assume the worst of the other person. I’ll never understand how this sort of thing came to be called “love” in our culture, but there you have it.

I realize that I’m not one to complain given how wooden and choppy my own writing style is, but I found Penman’s style in this book to be rather difficult to read. She has the awful tendency to force what should have been several sentences into one, joining them awkwardly. For example, she writes: “He even tried to forget the atrocity stories that were so much a part of his heritage, tales of English conquest and cruelties.” It works fine for effect now and then, but she uses it nearly every other sentence!

The book is meticulously researched and Penman is able to really bring the setting to life. The story, although about a class that is all-but extinct living lives that are so unlike anything we are familiar with, is, at the same time, very accessible. The conflict of allegiance between one’s parents and one’s spouse is something that I think most readers would be able to sympathize with.

Despite it’s flaws, I’d put Here Be Dragons as one of the better historical fiction novels on the market, well worth the read for anyone interested in the Middle Ages.

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Justin de Quincy Mysteries #4: Prince of Darkness by Sharon Kay Penman

Read: 10 September, 2008

This is the fourth in Penman’s Justin de Quincy mystery series, but the first of her novels that I’ve read. In some ways, it was a shame because it gave me the feeling of falling into the story mid-way. The novel is definitely readable without having read any of the previous books, but since a lot of the characters are reappearances, I fear that I might know too much should I ever decide to read the previous novels in the collection. For those terribly curious, I started with this book because I found it for $2 at a Chapters inventory liquidation sale.

The fact that the order in which fate had me pick up the series is the biggest complaint that I can make about Prince of Darkness is quite telling. It was a fantastic novel with great characters. It was definitely one of those “can’t put it down” books – so much so that I missed my bus stop by about 20 minutes today while finishing it up. Justin is a delightful character – believable yet naive – making his relationship with his daughter heartbreaking.

The only weakness of the novel is how it deals with climactic scenes. There are a few parts where potential action is skipped over entirely and the final “catch the bad guy” scene felt somewhat limp compared to the build up it received. Certainly, Penman’s strength is in character, exposition, and presenting a living and utterly plausible world. It was an added bonus I felt that I recognized some of the Gieses’ books in her descriptions.

It was interesting the way Penman skips travel narration altogether. Justin will say that he wants to go to X location and the chapter ends. When the next chapter begins, he’s in X already. I don’t think I’ve ever seen travel handled quite so abruptly and I’m not quite sure how I feel about it yet. When the novel first opened, I found it confusing. I didn’t know if this was a flashback, a different set of characters, if I’d missed something. A couple times, I found myself having to read nearly a full page before I could confidently situate myself in the narrative. After the first couple chapters, though, I became accustomed to it and it no longer confused me. Once this happened, I somewhat enjoyed not having to let go of the action every time an exposition scene would have been found.

The mystery wasn’t as good as I would have hoped. There certainly was one, but there was no discernible method to the gathering of clues and the thinking out of the whoddunnits. It really didn’t matter all that much. I found myself so interested in the characters that I forgot about the mystery entirely.

In any case, it was a great novel. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in Medieval historical novels, character driven novels, or political intrigue. Mystery lovers may be disappointed, however.

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