Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Lionheart by Sharon Kay Penman — 608 pgs

In this tense and gripping historical fiction novel, celebrated author Sharon Kay Penman explores the reign of King Richard, son of Henry Plantagenet and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Richard, called Lionheart by some, is known for his courage and bravery on the battlefield, and having taken the cross and pledging his armies to the Third Crusade, makes the difficult passage to Outremer to wage a holy war against Saladin, sultan of the Saracens. Though Richard’s intentions are good, he’s made an alliance with King Phillipe of France, a man known for his cunning and duplicity. Richard also brings with him his new bride Berengaria, a princess of Navarre, and his beloved sister Joanna, queen of Sicily. Though Richard is anxious begin his conquest, he is unable to reach the Holy lands without many struggles and battles, both with the lords loyal to France and with other more dastardly kings. It’s a monumental struggle for him to reach Saladin and the war he so longs engage in. After many delays, Richard finally arrives in Outremer and begins to plan the battles that will live on in infamy. While Richard and his men are busily fighting the Saracens, King Phillipe and the lords loyal to him are secretly doing everything in their power to make Richard’s quest to liberate Jerusalem a failure. After many pitched battles, illness and setbacks, Richard begins to see that his mortal enemy, Saladin, is a more honorable warrior than some of the men he’s allied himself with. As the war rages on, and battle after battle begin to take a toll on the king and his men, it seems this war may never be won by either side. Soon Richard must look for new solutions to the growing discontent of his soldiers, as well as coming to terms with his own stubborn pride. Rife with political and military intrigue, Penman re-imagines the life of one of the most heroic and mercurial kings of all time, and shares the story of the greatest and most costly adventure of his lifetime.

I admit to being very excited about getting the chance to read one of Penman’s historical fiction novels, for I’ve long heard her name bandied about when it comes to celebrated and loved authors of the genre. I knew very little of the ostentatious King Richard going into this book, but this wasn’t a problem because Penman does a fantastic job of presenting her version of Richard in all his glory, might and mischievousness. This was a type of historical fiction I’m less familiar with, for most of the book was centered on battles and politics instead of the personal intrigues of history which I’m more accustomed to. I found that I had to read this offering a bit more slowly than other historical fiction because I didn’t want to lose any of the significance of the battle scenes or the scenes in the political arena.

Initially, I didn’t like Richard very much. He seemed to be quite besotted with himself and very arrogant. While I did enjoy his jocular nature, I also thought he sometimes ruled a little inflexibly, and though he did seem to make a lot of concessions to the men who were allied against him, there were times when his resolve could be very thorny and his showmanship brash. As time wore on though, I began to understand Richard a little more fully, for he showed himself to be a very formidable warrior and he was greatly respected by his men. Even his enemies were reluctant to come head to head with him, and preferred to deal their blows in nefarious and secretive ways. At times, I did feel that Richard could be pompous, but he had an innate sense of chivalry and honor that I couldn’t refute, though I never changed my opinions about his mercurial nature. Richard was different than a lot of kings I’ve read about because he was first and foremost a warrior king, and earned the great respect of his subjects and lords for riding out to battle at the head of his men, instead of being barricaded behind castle walls giving orders.

One of the most interesting things about this book was the way Penman created such drama and intrigue on the page. The tense negotiations between Saladin and Richard, the very cowardly plots of the French king Phillipe, and the infuriating situations in Cyprus and Sicily were rich with significance and tension, and Penman had a way of exposing secrets and revealing critical information in a way that kept me breathless with anticipation and hungering for more. There were a few times I was sitting quietly on the couch reading and I would burst out with an exclamation that would draw attention from all over the room, so great was my surprise and investment in the book. Though I am by no means a great strategist or political enthusiast, Penman held me in the palm of her hand with the military side of this book as well. Everything was explained clearly and concisely, and I had no trouble ferreting out what some of these meeting and incursions meant to Richard and his men.

Though I though this book was an excellent and masterful work of historical fiction, I longed to see more of the plights of the women involved on the page. I was hungry for more information on Berengaria and Joanna and their companions, and though I did relish getting this very unguarded look at a mighty warrior king and his quest to reclaim the Holy Land, I would have loved to have seen more from the women’s perspectives. They were all highly developed characters, and each showed a great deal of strength and pluck while following Richard in his quest, but there were few scenes focused on them. Instead, I focused my attention on the ever intriguing Saladin and his strange but affable battle behavior. He was a villain that I was most curious about, for he was both bloodthirsty and bold, yet honorable and chivalrous as well. The cast of characters in this book were a varied lot, some insipid and weak, and others brave and wise, but all of them were fully imagined and very three-dimensional. I marveled at Penman’s ability to create so many characters with such depth, and felt that she wrought them all with a fine and delicate touch.

I enjoyed this book immensely and found great satisfaction in both the subtle nuances and the bold sorties that Penman so effortlessly created. Lovers of historical fiction will find many things to marvel over and contemplate in this book, and those new to Penman will discover that hers is a very capable hand in the creation and re-imagining of history. Penman is already working on the next book in this series, which is to be called A King’s Ransom, and if you know anything about me, you know I’m already looking forward to it. A decisive winner of the genre. Recommended.


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

19 comments:

Sandy Nawrot said...

Really an excellent review, but I'm sure you know that my eyes crossed! I guess if I ever decide to take the plunge in this sub-genre, maybe this should be the one...

Marg said...

Sharon Kay Penman is an awesome historical fiction author. If you loved this book I can't wait to hear what you think of her even more highly regarded earlier books like Sunne in Splendour and Here Be Dragons.

Mrs Q Book Addict said...

I haven't read anything by Sharon Kay Penman, and now I really want to check out some of her books. I really do love a good historical fiction novel. This one sounds really interesting. Great review!

bermudaonion said...

I imagine this book is well researched and written, but I'm just not sure it's for me.

Jenny said...

Books about battles do not do well with me, LOL... I've been known to skim over battle or war scenes (atonement, gwtw, etc.)... but I do like politics in fiction. Nonetheless I think this one would be over my head! I don't read too many historical fiction so I think I should stick to the better known history for now.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Excellent review as usual! And any author who can make Richard likeable has my interest!

Natalie~Coffee and a Book Chick said...

I'm in the process of reading this, and it's my first Sharon Kay Penman - I love it so much right now. And so far, I think I've seen a lot of Berengaria and Joanna at this point and their sadness, but SKP definitely does focus more on Richard and the battles. Which I have really enjoyed thus far. Her attention to detail, her sweeping descriptions of battle - it's incredible. I can see Richard's fleet of ships on the horizon, you know?

Audra said...

Great review -- I love reading your thoughts as they often echo mine or pick up things I sort of only vaguely noticed. In this case, I'm reading Lionheart later this week and really excited -- but saddened the ladies don't get more play. Historically accurate, I suppose, but still, I like it when the women get more action.

Darlene said...

Great review. I've heard so much about Penman and often wondered if I'd enjoy her novels. This one certain l sounds good but I wonder if I'd get bogged down as I really do like historical fiction with the more personal aspects than ones full of battles and political intrigue.

Peppermint Ph.D. said...

As you know, I love this kind of stuff...and I actually like the sweeping thick storylines rich with description. I can see me savoring this one. I'm adding it to my TBR :)

Aarti said...

I'm glad you enjoyed this one! I agree that it would have been nice to see more about the women, as they seemed a bit cardboard-esque to me and could have been shaped a little better. Though they really must all pale in comparison to Eleanor!

Trisha said...

Great review! Historical fiction is not a genre I seek out, but I have enjoyed the few I've read.

Suko said...

What a lovely and nuanced review! You are such a wonderful writer!

Jenners said...

Glad you enjoyed it. This isn't my kind of book but maybe you'll convince me to try it more one day.

TheBookGirl said...

I do like historical fiction, but I don't read much in the English royalty vein, so a 600 page offering might be too much for me.I am so impressed with the volume of pages you read, and the fact that you are able to post such consistently thorough reviews on such a frequent basis.

Aths said...

This book sounds fascinating! I love a good saga-like historical fiction, especially when it is something like LOTR, but even if not, I can usually enjoy it. So I'll keep an eye out for this!

Kailana said...

I am looking forward to reading this. I have it on my TBR pile.

Pam (@iwriteinbooks) said...

Oh, I don't know this one but it sounds seriously well done. I may have to go track it down as it looks like something I'll enjoy as a series, as well. Thanks for the beautiful review!

Geosi said...

i am not a huge fun of historical fiction although this sound like one i would like. Thanks for this.

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