Lisa (Harmonybites)'s Reviews > Lionheart

Lionheart by Sharon Kay Penman
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Apr 21, 2016

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bookshelves: fiction, historical-fiction, novels, ebooks
Recommended for: Those Who Love Historically Accurate Historical Fiction
Read from August 08 to 14, 2011 , read count: 1

Penman is one of my favorite novelists, so I was happy when I won a free advanced copy of this novel, to be published in October, from LibraryThing's Early Reviewer's program. This novel has many qualities that define the best of historical fiction. First, Penman has an evident respect for history and well-researched knowledge of the periods she depicts. Her characters don't sound like reality tv stars nor is her history risible such as that of Philippa Gregory. In this novel of Richard the Lionhearted and his war in the Holy Land, Penman quotes primary sources such as medieval chroniclers who were witnesses to the Third Crusade from both sides, Frank and Saracen. She has a way with the telling detail, whether sexual practices, medicine, cuisine or details of dress or siege warfare that brings another age and land to life. And as with her other books, I greatly appreciate her afterwards that detail what liberties she took with history.

Most crucially Penman doesn't just write historical characters as modern people in dress up. She's a great tour guide into that foreign land--a century long past--and in that regard I rank her with the best writers of historical fiction such as Mary Renault and Robert Graves. She writes of a mindset alien and alienating to contemporary sensibilities yet manages to still make her characters sympathetic. This is no mean feat given medieval views on warfare, religious tolerance and the status of women. This is particularly so when it comes to the title character. We see Richard from a multiplicity of views, although rarely his own. There are dozens of point of view characters here in a sprawling book spanning around 600 pages covering from July of 1189 to August 1192, from the time Richard becomes King to when he leaves the Holy Land. We're taken from Normandy to Sicily to Cyprus and then on to Palestine.

And the portrait that emerged of Richard was more complex and intriguing than I expected. Penman's is a rounded picture, that neither glosses over his flaws nor paints over his virtues. This is a king who doesn't hesitate to force women into unwanted marriages nor to slaughter men who surrendered to him when required out of military necessity, who has a bad temper, holds grudges and can be ruinously stubborn. But this is also a man who can be generous and has a good sense of humor, who others willingly follow into battle because he shares their hardships, is reckless with his life but careful of the lives of his men, and who displayed an undaunted courage that earned him the sobriquet "lionhearted" even before he became a king, let alone a crusader. Nor as depicted here is he a narrow-minded religious bigot, but someone who respected his adversaries and tried to come to terms with them in ways his fellow crusaders did not. There are also other fascinating portraits here, from famous figures such as Eleanor of Aquitaine to more obscure figures such as Henri, Count of Champagne. I finished this book better understanding the Third Crusade and why it was a qualified failure, from the point of view of the European crusaders. We get some sense of their foes as well, but primarily from the Eurocentric point of view--we never really get inside the heads of the defending Muslims.

I'd definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in the period, King Richard the Lionhearted of England, or who enjoys Penman's work. As to the reason I don't give this top marks... Well, Sharon Kay Penman has formidable competition--from Sharon Kay Penman. Her biographical novel of Richard III, The Sunne in Splendour, and of King John's daughter Joanna, Here Be Dragons, are two of my favorite novels and would certainly make my top twenty list of favorite historical fiction, and Here Be Dragons is high on my list of the most moving love stories I've ever read. I didn't find Lionheart as moving or impressive as those novels. Nor do I find Penman as remarkable a stylist as Hilary Mantel of Wolf Hall or Dorothy Dunnett of Game of Kings. But that is to set a very high bar, and I'm sure few, if any, historical novels published this year will be as good as Lionheart.
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08/08 page 54
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04/21 marked as: read
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