“And what of those who didn’t know him? What happens, too, when all who knew him are dead, when people know only what they’ve been told?”
When I read The White Queen by Philippa Gregory earlier in the year, I became intrigued by Richard III, the Wars of the Roses and the mystery of the Princes in the Tower. The Sunne in Splendour was recommended to me as the best fictional account of Richard III, so I immediately bought a copy – and it has taken me until now to pick it up and read it. I think one of the things that was putting me off was the sheer size of the book; it’s one of those books that is physically difficult to hold because it’s so thick and heavy. But as soon as I started reading I knew I was going to love this book. Not only did it turn out to be the best historical fiction book I’ve read for a long time, it was also one of the best books of any type that I’ve read this year.
The Sunne in Splendour tells the complete life story of Richard III from childhood to death. Penman portrays Richard as a sympathetic figure who has been unfairly treated by history. Sadly, he is often thought of today as the villain of Shakespeare’s Richard III: the evil hunchback who murdered his nephews. It’s worth remembering though, that Shakespeare lived in Tudor England – and it was Henry Tudor who defeated Richard, the last of the Plantagenet kings.
The Wars of the Roses is the term used to describe a series of battles and rebellions that took place between two branches of the English royal family, the House of York and the House of Lancaster, during the late fifteenth century. I already had some basic knowledge of the period before I started reading this book, but even if you don’t I think Penman makes it easy enough to understand. Sometimes a story can suffer from the author’s attempts to include every little bit of interesting information they’ve uncovered in their research, but that’s not actually a problem here. Yes, there’s an enormous amount of detail, but everything feels necessary and helps to build up a vivid picture of Richard’s world.
The author really brought the characters to life and made them feel like real people who I could understand and care about rather than just names on the pages of a school history book. The number of characters with similar names could have caused confusion but I thought Penman handled the problem very well making them easy to identify by using nicknames (Ned, Dickon, Bess etc) or titles (Warwick, Clarence, Montagu) and Edward of Lancaster is given the French version of his name, Edouard, to distinguish him from Edward of York.
The story is told from multiple viewpoints, with surprisingly little of the story being from Richard’s perspective. Much of what we learn about Richard we learn through the eyes of his family, friends and enemies. A lot of time is devoted to the romance between Richard and Anne Neville, but what really fascinated me was the complex relationship between the York brothers, Richard, Edward and George.
As you might expect, there are a number of battle scenes – something that I don’t usually enjoy, but these were so well written that I was able to follow exactly what was happening and could even form mental pictures of the battlefields and the positions of the two opposing armies. The Battle of Barnet kept me up late on a work night and the Battle of Tewkesbury was even more compelling. I loved the way we got to see the human side of the battles, the emotions of the people on the battlefield, rather than just descriptions of the military tactics. While Richard and Edward are clearly supposed to be our ‘heroes’, it’s a testament to Penman’s writing that I could also cry at the deaths of their ‘enemies’.
Being almost 900 pages long, it took me a long time to read this book, but that was mainly because it was so emotionally intense in places that I couldn’t read too much at once. And also, I was dreading reaching the end. The problem with a book like this is that you know what’s ultimately going to happen (at least you do if you have some background knowledge of the period or have read about it before) so I knew what the eventual fate of the characters was going to be.
This is one of the best books I’ve read this year and I can’t believe I’ve never read anything by Sharon Penman before now. At least I know I’ll have hours of reading pleasure ahead of me as I work through the rest of her novels!