Friday, November 4, 2011

Lionheart by Sharon Kay Penman. Historical Fiction Review

G.P. Putnam's Sons (Penguin Group), Published 2011, ISBN 978-0-399-15785-1

Sharon Kay Penman originally said Devil's Brood would be the last in her series of the Angevins.  However, research she compiled compelled her to tell the story of Richard I, also known as Richard the Lionheart, in her lastest historical fiction novel, Lionheart.

General historical consensus concludes Richard I was a warrior King with superior battle skills, possessed an uncanny skill at surviving combats where he put himself personally at risk and was cold-blooded.

Lionheart is the story of the Third Crusade.  Saladin holds Jerusalem and Richard, now crowned King of England, takes up the Cross and swears an oath to retake Jerusalem for Christian pilgrims.  For three years, he gathers money and supplies and, finally, in July, 1190, after reaching an accord with King Philippe of France to share the spoils equally, the journey towards the Holy Land commences.

Richard trusts Philippe not at all, but even he is not prepared for the betrayals and intrigues that will decimate the army that set out with a holy cause and a willingness to die to achieve their goal.

Lionheart is chock-full of battle scenes with the Scarcens with gains and losses on both sides.  Saladin and his forces are on equal footing with Richard I and his battle strategies.  In spite of their opposing objectives, a mutual respect is born.

Lionheart reveals Richard I in a different light; Although he is shown as fearless, reckless, an exceptional strategizer and, in one incident, as heartless and bloody - for which history has never forgiven him - he is also portrayed as compassionate, has several friends, values family bonds (an amazing aspect considering the terrible actions of his immediate family towards each other), enjoys teasing and is capable of love.

These attributes are displayed by his love for his sister, Joanna, who accompanies him on the Crusade and his tender, if not loving, attitude towards Beregaria, his Queen.  His fiercest attachments seem to be for his cousins and nephew who fight alongside him, encourage him, support his decisions, agonize with him over losses, through necessity support a deed which forever mars his memory and nurse him through bouts of quatrain fever.

Lionheart is not just about Richard I. Penman has an immense cast of characters, of which only two are fictionalized.  I must admit I had trouble at times keeping track of who was who, especially the crusaders.  Allegiances were fickle and it was sometimes difficult to remember to whom a man had sworn his fidelity.

Penman includes sub-plots which involving Joanna, Beregaria, the wife and daughter of the Cyprus king Richard deposed and the fictional Mariam.  The fears and deprivations these women suffered along the road to the Holy Land are given prominence.

Sharon Kay Penman is in my Top 5 of Most Favorite Authors.  She most certainly did not disappoint with Lionheart.  Lionheart took me on a crusade as no other historical fiction novel has.  The novel flows seamlessly with minute details almost as if Penman was actually present on the Third Crusade.  After reading Lionheart you will have a different outlook on whether the Third Crusade was a dismal failure and Richard a barbarian. This is a mark of an excellent researcher and novelist.

In her Author's Notes, Penman acknowledges her general view of Richard I was unfavorable until she dug deeper into both Christian and Saracen chronicles and realized there was more to the man than blood and ruthlessness.

Penman is currently working on her second novel regarding Richard I, A King's Ransom.  I can hardly wait!

Rating:   5 starts ***** (exceptional)

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