Well, I was worried for nothing. After being somewhat disappointed with Penman’s last novel, Lionheart, I was afraid the follow-up (which covers Richard I’s life after the crusade) was going to be a rather tedious account of his time as a “guest” of the Duke of Austria and the Holy Roman Emperor. After almost 700 pages, I concluded that Lionheart must have a been a fluke. Thank goodness!
With a dizzying array of characters and the meticulous research for which she’s known, Penman presents Richard the man rather the Richard the Lionheart. The attempt is mostly successful and this is by far the best fictional account of Richard I that I’ve read (interestingly, there really aren’t that many novels that focus on Richard). The reason for the “mostly successful” is that Penman’s Richard is perhaps just a little too “nice” for his own good. Given his genetics, his position, his life experiences and his legend, I would expect Richard’s personality to be more complex and interesting. Rarely do you see fits of temper or nastiness (except where directed towards his captors) or the types of emotions and outbursts people often regret later. He seems to mostly take what comes his way with grace, charm, and patience, leaving a Richard who never totally emerges from the Lionheart’s shadow.
As in Lionheart, Richard is seriously upstaged by other characters –again his sister Joanna provides much needed social, domestic and cultural references and her relationship with Raimond, Count of Toulouse provides the romance missing from Richard’s own marriage. But it is the youngest of the family, John, that I enjoyed the most and I thought he displayed the subtlety of character I had hoped for in Richard. Charmingly manipulative, sly and more intelligent than you might expect, John steals every scene.
Following Richard’s release from captivity, a string of battles/sieges follow that could have been less detailed. Penman’s strength is writing about relationships, not battles, and they lack the dramatic intensity of say, Bernard Cornwell. Penman remains one of my favorite writers and few can match her abilities in transporting the reader to another world full of people you would like to get to know better.
In case the FTC asks: Copy from the publisher