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!