Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship's Reviews > Here be Dragons

Here be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman
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I usually shy away from historical fiction starring real people, finding that such books are often dry--that, or widely derided for inaccuracy. This is one of those rare books that is neither, that is thoroughly researched but never reads like biography; the characters and their inner lives and relationships are fleshed out in a way that would make any novelist proud.

Here Be Dragons spans 51 years of Welsh and English history (from 1183 to 1234), focusing on the lives of three main characters: Llewelyn, the Prince of Gwynedd; King John of England; and Joanna, John's illegitimate daughter and Llewelyn's wife. The character development is excellent, with nuanced portraits of each. I found them all ultimately sympathetic, but there's a lot of gray area and controversial decisions, just what I like in fiction. The time span, though, is both good and bad. On the positive side, we get a broad view of the historical picture and see the characters grow and mature; the love story, instead of just showing the courting phase, covers a decades-long marriage, which is especially refreshing because the portrayal is neither excessively idealistic nor depressingly dreary. The downside is that timeskips tend to be jarring; so much happens offstage in both the personal and political realms that constant exposition (often thinly disguised as dialogue) is required to keep us up to speed. I often felt like I lost track of the characters due to their rapid aging; Llewelyn, for instance, pops in and out of the narrative for the first 20 years covered, remaining distant from the reader up until his marriage with Joanna. This novel might have worked better as an entire trilogy! Without question, I thought the best part was the 50% or so in the middle, which spanned only 10-15 years and slowed down enough to allow the reader to become truly involved.

But any book with this many 5-star reviews has obviously hit on something, and Here Be Dragons has a winning combination: excellent history, but wonderfully readable, turning the characters into people who are fully realized and sympathetic. There's some action, and a fair number of events and situations that are truly bizarre--all of these, of course, grounded in the historical record. Overall, it's good stuff, and I would certainly recommend to historical fiction fans and those interested in sampling the genre.
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