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.