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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Mistress of the Art of Death #3: Grave Goods by Ariana Franklin

Read: 21 November, 2009

Two bodies have been found in Glastonbury, and King Henry II sends Adelia Aguilar to confirm that the two mysterious skeletons belong to King Arthur and his lady Guinevere. If Henry can prove once and for all that Arthur is nothing more than a pile of bones, it will crush the Celt rebellion for good.

But things are never quite so simple. What should have been just a short trip to identify some remains quickly turns into a life or death struggle for Adelia and her companions.

Grave Goods is another excellent addition to the Mistress of the Art of Death series. Adelia is still something of a Mary Sue, but the plot is so interesting that this is quickly forgotten.

Throughout the series, I’ve been particularly impressed with the portrayal of Henry II. It certainly isn’t one that I’d seen before.

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Cadfael Chronicles #1: A Morbid Taste for Bones by Ellis Peters

Read: 9 May, 2008

This was my first Brother Cadfael mystery, though I did avidly watch the television show. I was not disappointed, not even by an ounce!

The most important thing that I would like to mention is that the characters are fabulous, something that is sadly quite rare in mystery genre-fiction. They felt real, like people I might meet in my day-to-day life. More than that, they felt unique. Cadfael, in particular, was very well developed. More importantly, when the narrator says that everyone likes him or that his speeches were well-received, it reflects my own opinion on his actions and speeches perfectly. This was a welcome breath of fresh air after reading The Mysteries of Udolpho.

The female characters were great too. They weren’t all feminist icons (though certainly there were some realistically very strong female characters) and none of them were the swooning brand of silly girls. They were sensible and strong and human, just like male characters but with a realistic dose of femininity. This is something that I haven’t seen done well in a very long time. Something about women makes most authors want to define their characters by their gender, as opposed to male characters who are defined by their individual traits. The baddies, too, were not entirely hate-able. I disliked them, certainly, but I also understood them and could empathize with their individual situations. Again, this perfect balance between due dislike and human sympathy is something that I have very rarely seen juggled to perfection.

The sense of humour was definitely a positive. It wasn’t “laugh-out-loud” sort of humour, but rather present in subtle phrases that could easily be missed if the reader isn’t paying attention. This is part of what makes Cadfael seem so likable. Humour seems to come naturally from him, unlike many protagonists who seem to force it, trying too hard to gain the reader’s approval. The humour was also appropriate. In times of violence, for example, the narrative focuses on dealing with the situation, not poking fun of something that would be horrifying to live through. I suppose this is a reflection of our practical protagonist, but it works well. There was certainly a lot of morbid humour, but it was never inappropriate.

I mentioned earlier that mystery genre-fiction has certain shortcomings. The biggest of these is that characters tend to feel like cardboard cutouts rather than real living and breathing people. They are simplified because simplicity is easier to handle in a mystery – it makes it easier for the protagonist to come in and make order out of a chaotic event. That’s something that I loved about Cadfael. He does not seek to impose order in that same way. He solves the mystery, yes, but the resolution is unexpected and, perhaps to those who like to have everything wrapped up neatly and the truth known to everyone, unsatisfying. But he finds a solution that works within a chaotic world and that’s the solution that stands, even if it means that he has to substitute one set of lies for another.

Another shortcoming of the mystery genre is that it tends to have only a mystery. There will be “character backstory” going on, but it will usually be predictable and take a backseat. In this novel, however, the author successfully manages to juggle both the story and the mystery so that both flow naturally from one-another. Both are well-developed, and their interconnection never feels forced.

To ruin the ending for you, the bad guy dies. It’s an accidental death, as it usually is (who wants to stain the protagonists with murder, after all?), but he still dies. This is something I’ve never liked. I prefer everyone to be brought to justice and have due process carried out. However, it didn’t bother me nearly as much in this novel as it has in others because, unlike Hiaasen’s novels for example, the characters actually seem to realize that they have done something they shouldn’t have and feel some remorse for it. There isn’t as much remorse as I would like (the inclusion of the phrase “oh no, what have I done?!” would have made me feel much better), but at least it was given a mention. And perhaps it is realistic considering the times and the cultural drive for blood-price. Again, at least it was mentioned (and the mention felt like it was part of the story, not just tacked on to make the protagonists look good).

All in all, this was an amazing book. Once I started it, I could hardly put it down. The prose flows beautifully, the humour kept me entertained, and the characters felt like living/breathing people. I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the middle ages, mystery novels, or just anyone who likes to read a truly good book.

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