Iset's Reviews > When Christ and His Saints Slept

When Christ and His Saints Slept by Sharon Kay Penman
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Aug 05, 11

bookshelves: cream-of-the-crop, medieval-age-1000-to-1400ce-fiction
Recommended to Iset by: Dad
Recommended for: Absolutely everyone
Read from July 23 to August 02, 2011 — I own a copy, read count: 2

It was with great anticipation that I returned to Sharon Penman’s When Christ and His Saints Slept, the first book by Sharon Penman that I ever read at the tender age of 10, and which for good reasons immediately became one of my favourite books of all time and in all the years since has never been displaced from its solid and thoroughly deserved status as the cream of the crop not just of historical fiction but across genres. This is the only book for which I have ever stayed awake without sleep all night simply in order to read. I'd always meant to re-read When Christ and His Saints Slept someday, and I loved it just as much the second time round as the first, if not more, and I daresay that’ll be equally true of the 100th reading.

Re-reading When Christ and His Saints Slept was a joy and a delight. Sharon Penman is one of those exquisitely rare writers who can’t put a foot wrong. The vocabulary she can draw upon would put professors of English to shame, her understanding of the language is almost unmatched, and her consummate fluidity of writing and fluency has few rivals. Moreover, Sharon’s writing style is supremely natural and elegant in its simplicity – though it’s plain that Sharon has the linguistic knowledge to bewilder and befuddle us with hideously complex constructions and obscure tongue-twisters, she doesn’t. Her efforts are consistently devoted to lucidity and creating the best reading experience possible. Sharon shows us rather than tells us, and where she does tell it fits so seamlessly into the narrative that you’d hardly notice its presence at all. Her dialogue is unforced and appears effortless. Her descriptions are that rare beast; concise yet perfectly clear and astonishingly vivid and real. Scenes of laugh-out-loud acerbic humour are written as adroitly as scenes of moving poignancy. This book is not just "interesting" or "engaging", those words are not fit for purpose when describing When Christ and His Saints Slept. It’s amazingly easy to pick this book up and within a paragraph find yourself sucked into a wondrously detailed and thoroughly authentic Medieval world, and emerge an unknown amount of time later to discover that hours and hours have passed by. This book is completely absorbing, utterly enthralling, and resplendently captivating. I read it as if spellbound, for When Christ and His Saints Slept is a literary dream.

Sharon’s research is ever-impeccable to the point where I must admit to a mixture of enviousness and a truly uncommon admiration. This is an author who berates herself over the anachronistic appearance of hoods for hunting falcons in this very book, and details such as the colour of dog hair in Medieval canine breeds – inaccuracies of such miniscule stature that surely fewer than one in a thousand would ever pick up on them, and of those that do forgivable without a second thought. I’m in awe of Sharon’s dedication to historical accuracy; now this is the level of historical accuracy that I expect of all historical fiction, I only wish all authors were as devoted to it as Sharon Penman. Sharon sticks to events as closely as possible and lets the history speak for itself, devoid of embellishment except in a few scarce instances. She makes no attempt to dumb down events for her readers by simplifying, but gives her readers the credit they deserve and trusts that we’re intelligent enough to comprehend the complexities of the actual history. This is something I’d sorely like to see more of in the historical fiction industry. The picture that Sharon paints on the page with her words is so detailed, so thorough, I feel sure that Sharon must know every speck of dust in her world, and I’m half-convinced that she’s discovered the secret of time travel. Such a vivid, realistic picture brings the Medieval world to life before your very eyes; four-dimensional, subtle, sophisticated, and fully-formed.

Even more impressive is Sharon’s ability to infuse her characters with such depth and understanding and subtlety that you’d swear they were old friends. Whether fictional or real historical figures, Sharon seems to know and understand her characters like the back of her hand and creates tangible portraits of subtle, complex people, rooted in their times but distinctly modern, firmly dispelling the notion of past peoples as somehow alien in relation to ourselves. These are real, flawed people; intelligent, driven by complicated yet understandable motivations, starkly human, one feels as close to the real life historical individuals as one is ever like to get. Not one of them is unintelligible or lacks for empathy. Even if you find yourself taking sides and disagreeing with the decisions of certain characters, their reasoning is deftly illuminated, their motivations crystal clear. I must confess to becoming rather fond of the hot-headed Count of Chester, and even Eustace, whose actions are indisputably reprehensible, was understandable if not at all laudable. I must admit to whole-heartedly getting behind Maude whenever I read this book, warts and all as she comes, but at the same time Sharon Penman’s Stephen is no ghoulish villain designed with the express purpose of invoking the reader’s loathing; in actual fact he is often highly sympathetic. There are no black-and-white "sinners" and "saints" here as in so many other, lesser works of historical fiction which tend to play "the good guys vs the bad guys", only varying shades of grey. Sharon treats her historical characters as carefully as she does the historical facts: with objectivity, refinement and intricacy. All grow organically. She focuses on painting as accurate a picture as possible whilst standing back to let the reader make up their own minds about the people from history, she never tries to impose her own conclusions on us.

Sharon remarked in her author’s note that "This was the first time that I’d allowed a fictional character to share centre stage with historical figures, and I wasn’t sure if I’d feel comfortable with Ranulf." I simply adored Ranulf Fitz Roy, quite possibly the most significant fictional character in any of Sharon’s books, from the word go. Not quite in the same way as, for example, Llewelyn Fawr in Here Be Dragons – surely a romantic hero of historical fiction if ever there were one – but because I found Ranulf eminently identifiable: clever, enquiring, sensible, moderate, tolerant, unquestionably loyal but troubled at the realisation that war is never so simple as right versus wrong, the voice of sanity for many other characters but blind where it came to his own personal passions. I love Ranulf because he reminds me of myself. He’s that character that makes you say "Well, that’s what I’d do", and that’s why he’s such a roaring success. Sharon’s uncanny knack at recreating the grey characters from history comes less from her knowledge of the historical people and more from her understanding of the human condition. She’s applied the same understanding to creating Ranulf, and as a result he fits in flawlessly with Maude, Stephen, Henry and Eleanor. My only regret was that Ranulf was fictional, and thus could never take up Maude’s proffered earldom without warping history; I rather wished that Sharon would let the history slide just this once and allow Ranulf to take up the earldom he so clearly deserved!

Sharon weaves together all these elements to create a spellbinding yet authentic story of at once epic and human proportions. There is no heavy-handed laborious "message" here, again readers are free to make their own conclusions, rather one is struck by a simple truth well known to historians: history is often random and accidental, and its inhabitants are a colourful maelstrom of individuals who are impossible to define as wholly right or wrong, good or evil. I haven’t even mentioned points such as the novel’s pacing, point of view or length – such elements are so spot on that they are unnoticeable, and that is the mark of a good book.

The Sunne in Splendour may be Sharon’s Wars of the Roses magnum opus, the platinum standard for all other Wars of the Roses historical fiction, her Welsh trilogy begun with Here Be Dragons may be a sweeping tale of romance, triumph and tragedy, but When Christ and His Saints Slept will always be my favourite. A simply wonderful epic of the complex machinations and manoeuvrings of bloody civil war and the sophisticated, extraordinary, human characters it encompassed.

10 out of 10. Enough said.
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Quotes Iset Liked

Sharon Kay Penman
“I inhale hope with every breath I take.”
Sharon Kay Penman, When Christ and His Saints Slept
tags: hope

Sharon Kay Penman
“…she remembered watching a summer sunset from this very spot. Not so long ago; just a lifetime.”
Sharon Kay Penman, When Christ and His Saints Slept

Sharon Kay Penman
“It was just like him, she thought; with him, a happy ending was always a foregone conclusion. But such was the power of his faith that when she was with him; she found herself believing in happy endings, too.”
Sharon Kay Penman, When Christ and His Saints Slept

Sharon Kay Penman
“For every wound, the ointment of time.”
Sharon Kay Penman, When Christ and His Saints Slept

Sharon Kay Penman
“He'd never seen one so vibrant, though, or so vividly compelling... those glowing green eyes sparkling with sunlight and curiosity and silent laughter, and when she glanced in Henry's direction, she held his gaze, a look that was both challenging and enigmatic... He was utterly certain that this was Eleanor of Aquitaine, and no less sure that the French King must be one of God's greatest fools.”
Sharon Kay Penman, When Christ and His Saints Slept


Reading Progress

07/22/2011 page 0
0.0% "Decided I'm going to re-read this in anticipation of Sharon's new book!"
07/23/2011 page 9
1.0% "Well, you gotta start somewhere."
07/24/2011 page 36
4.0% "One of the most enduring images from the first time I read this book - the introduction of Geoffrey of Anjou through the eyes of the younger sister of his mistress - sleeping sprawled out naked on a bed in all his "beautiful" glory."
07/26/2011 page 181
20.0% "(Maude's half-brothers on what to do with her husband Count Geoffrey of Anjou):
"What?" Robert asked impatiently. "What could you do? Kill him?"
"Not so fast," Rainald protested. "Why does Ranulf get to do it? What about me? At the ver least, we ought to dice for the chance!"
Best. Line. Ever. Ah, WCAHSS, how I've missed you!"
07/30/2011 page 465
51.0% ""The snow had stopped several hours ago, but began again as soon as Hugh and Sampson were out of sight, and this time the flakes were not soft and lazy, floating wisps of white lace.""
07/31/2011 page 561
62.0% "Henry grinned. "I am quite serious. I sent a messenger to Cousin Stephen, explaining that I was out of funds and asking for a loan to get back to Normandy. My man said that he read the letter, laughed until he was blinking back tears, and then agreed to give me tha money, provided that I did not overstay my welcome." Love the humour in Sharons' works."
08/01/2011 page 704
77.0% "He'd never seen one so vibrant, though, or so vividly compelling... those glowing green eyes sparkling with sunlight and curiosity and silent laughter, and when she glanced in Henry's direction, she held his gaze, a look that was both challenging and enigmatic... He was utterly certain that this was Eleanor of Aquitaine, and no less sure that the French King must be one of God's greatest fools.

Henry meets Eleanor"
08/02/2011 page 808
89.0% ""Geoff and those of his followers not already in hiding hold up in Montsoreau. I laid siege to it and captured it easily enough to embarrass Geoff, who had no choice then but to seek my forgiveness."

Keeping the rebellion in the family. 19 year old Henry Fitz Empress, Duke of Normandy, puts 17 year old brother Geoff in his place. :) Love this family so much!"
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Comments (showing 1-9 of 9) (9 new)

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Dawn (& Ron) I saw your review post and subsequent comments on Sharon Kay Penman's blog. Who could blame you for feeling misty-eyed over her glowing remarks for your review and learning that she felt this was the best she had ever read. Many congratulations on both.

There's not many, at 10 years of age, who would tackle such a read, that in itself is impressive. Did you find your adult self better appreciated or understood certain elements, that may have eluded you as a child reader? Or vice versa?


Iset Strangely, no. That sounds very odd, I know. I would expect a different appreciation or understanding here and there, but I'm racking my brains and I can't think of anywhere during second reading that came up. Perhaps that's another sign of the quality of Sharon's work here - it's as comprehensible to me now as it was back then.


Dawn (& Ron) Wow, you must have been a very mature 10 year old, very impressive. Granted it's a clean read but there are still the adult interactions and politics to deal with. Do you find it hard, since you read the best so early on, to find books you like today?

Again congratulations on the compliments from SKP, that would make my week.


Iset I feel a tad embarrassed by that compliment - don't want to be blowing my own trumpet or anything, but to provide some sort of context: I was actually having some trouble with my reading at the time. At school I'd been put into an accelerated reading programme, but I was still reading childrens' books, unfortunately most of our reading selections I found dull beyond belief (no Harry Potter in those days!). In my spare time I'd been taking out the teenage books from the library for some time, but even with those my interest was beginning to wane, and I was kind of at a point where reading was beginning to slip away from me as a hobby that I enjoyed doing, because I couldn't find anything to interest me. Then one day my father came home from the library with Saints, and when he put it down I picked it up. Saints quite possibly saved my interest in reading! After that I picked up Jane Eyre, Catch 22, and Escape (James Clavell), and then it was adult books all the way!

I think perhaps the only difference I can think of is that I now approach the friendships, romantic and family relationships with a more knowing eye. It's difficult to say that as I don't mean to imply that the first time round I was clueless about such things or that I wasn't moved by them the first time round.

Yes, inasmuch as I demand the same high standards from every book I read, and unfortunately the instance of a book matching up to those high standards is rare indeed.

It certainly made mine. :)


Dawn (& Ron) Your comments make sense to me on two fronts. I started reading adult books at 12-13 and I too was placed into accelerated reading. I was fascinated by WWII, just hearing about it and seeing some of the classic films with my grandmother, and by extension other wars. So I read Norman Mailer, Herman Wouk, Erich Marie Remarque and Stephen Crane. Still WCaHSS, that has so many levels, nuances and complexity that I don't think I would have grasped it at the level you did, at 10 or 13. The other issue I understand is fear of losing your love of reading. My frustrations come from a different place but yet I see the parallels, there was a threat to your reading. I completely lost my reading comprehension due to a head injury years ago. The frustration of having to re-learn and going through cognitive therapy almost cost me my love of reading. It took me 2-3 years, and although I never regained the speed at which I once read, I'm know not even half as fast as I was, I gained a greater love of reading.

I admit that the adult situations and certain feelings between adults, in the books I read, I didn't fully comprehend, and that I was probably clueless about the meaning behind them. Mind you not as clueless as I was those initial years after my brain injury, ha-ha. I pray never to visit that again.

I also approach how I read each book differently than I did before. I try to judge each book on its own merits, approaching each with a fresh mind, or clean slate. I admit this is still a work in progress because I think it is part of being human to compare things but I find my sheer enjoyment is better, less frustrating. I know that Penman, Dunnett and Chadwick are the top echelons of HF so I don't go into a read with that anticipation, I allow myself to being more receptive to that author's journey. This doesn't mean that I don't find fault or disappointment.

The reason I loved your review and decided to comment, outside of Penman's accolades, is because of the way you captured the how and whys of the spell the book cast on upon you. I only started doing reviews in the last year or so (even joined the new GR group on doing reviews). It was suggested that they may help my comprehension after I noticed difficulties starting to surface a couple years ago. I admit they have been very helpful but I would love to be able to convey just a percentage of what you did here.

I have a deal for you. I will try not to be embarrassed and ashamed when admitting/talking about my injury and subsequent difficulties if you will work on not being embarrassed over compliments and maybe toot, just a little bit. ;~)


Iset Alright, deal. :)


message 7: by Nina (new) - added it

Nina this is a great review! I haven't yet read the book, but now that I read your review I can't wait to start reading it. I only just discovered Sharon's books. I've only read The Sunne in splendor and I loved, especially the way she wrote the dialogs. The battle scenes were great too. I ordered her Welsh trilogy so I will read these first. I'm almost positive they'll be as good as The Sunne. :)


Iset They are! I only haven't reviewed them on here because I read them a long time ago and they're not fresh in my memory, but they're on my to-re-read list in fact!


message 9: by Nina (new) - added it

Nina Great! Thanks for the conformation. I can't wait to find out more about the history of Wells.


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