Sharon Kay Penman is one of my favorite historical fiction authors, and I’ve read every one of her novels since The Queen’s Man. As earlier blog posts will attest, I like my historical fiction grounded in fact but chock full of lively characters – two hallmarks of a Penman novel.
Lionheart’s blurb promises the story of Richard I, son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Indeed, it delivers this and a good bit more besides – it could have been Lionheart and Family (and maybe anyone who knew him). When the novel begins Henry II is already dead. Having ascended the throne, Richard is preparing to go on a crusade with the unlikable French King Philip II. Their animosity makes for good tension throughout between both kings and their supporters. En route to the Holy Land, Richard makes peace in Sicily, conquers Cyprus and solidifies his reputation as a formidable leader, and marries. Once in the Holy Land, Richard relentlessly pursues his ambition to free Jerusalem, even at the cost of his own kingdom.
This novel has elements I liked – foremost that Penman knows her history and does not play fast and loose with it (as far as I can tell). I love how she roots you in a scene, with detailed descriptions that tantalize all five senses in a way that is hard to beat. Her vocabulary challenges me–and my Kindle dictionary! I read the book on my iPad and wonder if the hardcover edition had a glossary?
As wonderful as Penman’s writing is, I found Richard in the Holy Land fighting skirmish after skirmish tedious. Once I understood that Richard I was an incredibly successful battle commander and brave to the point of being foolhardy with his own life, I could have lived with less blow-by-blow. Turns out I’m more interested in the politics and intrigue brewing on the European Continent than another trebuchet rolled into place. Penman told a fluid, detailed story. I’m just not one for battle upon battle. For this reason, it took me a while to get to the end.
Admittedly, I also struggled with what I felt were too many points of view, some of which mixed in scenes and was hard to follow. So many voices are of secondary characters—like Alicia, the nearly drowned girl who opens the novel and who I mistook for a major character. I suppose I noticed this more acutely because I’m balancing multiple points of view in my writing and so I note where it works well and where it distract me.
Those comments notwithstanding, I did enjoy Lionheart and I would recommend it if you like the Crusades, and want to know a lot more about King Richard I and his time there. My Penman favorites remain the The Sunne in Splendor, When Christ and His Saints Slept, and Here Be Dragons.