Here Be Dragons by Sharon Penman

Here Be Dragons is the first in Penman’s Welsh Princes trilogy and follows the lives of King John’s daughter, Joanna, and her Welsh husband, Llewelyn ab Iorweth (known as Llewelyn the Great).

The book begins in the year 1183 when we meet Llewelyn as a ten-year-old boy, upset at having to leave Wales and move over the border into England following his mother’s marriage to an English border lord. The grandson of Owain the Great, King of Gwynedd, Llewelyn is homesick for Wales and as soon as he is old enough, he returns to Wales to reclaim his crown from his uncles. Llewelyn becomes Prince of Gwynedd and eventually rules most of Wales and devotes his life to securing the stability of his country as he believes that a united Wales will be stronger and better able to defend itself against the English.

Our other main character, Joanna, is the illegitimate daughter of King John. After her mother’s death she goes to join her father at court and when Joanna is fourteen the King arranges to have her married to Llewelyn in the hope that their marriage will help to bring peace between Wales and England. As the years go by Joanna begins to love Llewelyn but finds herself increasingly torn between her father and her husband.

As Sharon Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour is one of my favourite historical fiction novels I probably shouldn’t have waited so long to read this one, but I do tend to do that with authors I’ve enjoyed – I can never decide whether I would rather read all their books as quickly as I can or spread them out over as long a period as possible so I still have something to look forward to. I finally picked up Here Be Dragons a few weeks ago and I wasn’t disappointed – I loved it!

Penman does such a good job of making some very complicated periods of history easy to follow and understand. Before I read The Sunne in Splendour I didn’t know much about Richard III or the Wars of the Roses but by the end of the book I really felt I had learned a lot, and I had the same feeling at the end of Here Be Dragons. Of course these novels are fiction and you can’t assume that everything in a historical fiction novel will always be completely accurate, but Penman’s books are obviously very well researched and she does include an author’s note where she explains which parts of the novel are fact and which are fiction.

The relationship between Joanna and Llewellyn forms a big part of the plot, but that’s not all this book is about. As well as romance, the story also includes political intrigue, battles, feuds, rivalry between brothers, betrayal and forgiveness. I didn’t always agree with what Joanna did, but I did like her and had a lot of sympathy for her, being caught between her husband and her father; not a choice that anybody should have to make. Using Joanna, in her unique position, as one of the novel’s main characters meant we could see things from both a Welsh and English perspective and neither were portrayed as the villains. There’s no doubt that King John made a lot of mistakes and errors of judgement, but he is portrayed here as having some good qualities as well as bad ones and is shown in a better light than in other novels I’ve read about him.

Of the two Penman books I’ve read, although I loved them both I did prefer The Sunne in Splendour but that’s probably because I’m more interested in that particular period of history. I will read the other two books in this trilogy, Falls the Shadow and The Reckoning and will try not to wait so long this time before I get around to reading them!

10 thoughts on “Here Be Dragons by Sharon Penman

  1. Sarah says:

    I also loved these books. I didn’t know a thing about Wales and this was a very happy accidental education. Now I’ll have to go find The Sunne in Splendor. Somehow I got distracted from the rest of her books…

  2. Lisa says:

    This sounds like it would fit nicely with the Cadfael mysteries. Owen appears in those, and Cadfael being Welsh but part of an English abbey has something of the same dual vision.

  3. FleurFisher says:

    It’s a long time since I read either, but though I thought The Sunne in Splendour a better book I enjoyed this one a little more. I must re-read Sharon Penman one day, and catch up with her last couple of books.

  4. aartichapati says:

    I loved The Sunne in Splendour, too! Will never believe the worst of Richard III! I really liked this book, too, but I didn’t really care for its sequels. The third book, especially, seems to just rehash the first a lot (as it is ALSO about people named Joanna and Llewelyn). I actually don’t like many of SKP’s other books except for these two.

  5. Lesley Arrowsmith says:

    But, aartichapati – The Reckoning (the third Welsh book) follows the history! I spent some time digging at Caergwrle Castle in North Wales as an archaeologist, and I also did the guided tours, so I knew the story of Llewelyn and Dafydd – and I was in tears for the entire last 200 pages of The Reckoning, because I knew what was coming!

  6. Elaine T says:

    ou might want to look up Edit Pargeter’s (Ellis Peters real name) HEAVEN TREE trilogy. The second (and maybe third book – it’s been a while since I read it) THE GREEN BRANCH also features Wales, Joan and Llewellyn.

    And she also wrote THE BROTHERs GWYNEDD QUARTET, about a the later Llewellyn who married Eleanor.

    I’ve never liked anything by Penman better than her first about Richard III (although I do blame him for the Princes, but even more so Edward for being such an idiot about women) but maybe I should look up this one.

  7. Lesley Arrowsmith says:

    The Heaven Tree trilogy is very good, I agree – but I prefer Sharon Penman’s version of the story of Llewelyn and Dafydd to Edith Pargeter’s. It’s mainly a matter of style, though.

  8. Fran Klos says:

    What I love about the Welsh Trilogy is that Penman brings to life in as accurate a way as possible a period that has not been written to death about. She treats histirical characters with factual accuracy and a sensitivity not biased by wronly written histories. I love all of her books but this Trilogy has becoma a mainstay of our entire family. And I agree with the earlier reader, I was in tears at the end becasue I knew what was coming – it gets me everytime precisly because it is true!

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