The Land Beyond the Sea by Sharon Penman

The first book I have finished in 2021 is actually one that I started last summer, but as with many of the books I tried to read last year I found that I wasn’t in the right frame of mind for anything long and complex. And at almost 700 pages, this novel is certainly long – and with a plot dealing with the history and politics of Outremer, or the Kingdom of Jerusalem, it is certainly complex! As I’m finding it a lot easier to concentrate on reading now, I picked the book up again and have enjoyed immersing myself in it over the last week or two.

Jerusalem was captured by the Crusaders in 1099, at the end of the First Crusade, and the kingdom they established there became known as Outremer or ‘the land beyond the sea’. The Crusaders who stayed in Outremer and made it their home were mainly of French origin and Penman refers to them (and their descendants) as Franks or Poulains. The novel covers the period from 1172 to 1187, a period when the kingdom is becoming divided by disputes over the succession to the throne and when the Muslim Arabs (referred to as Saracens in the book), led by their sultan Saladin, are taking advantage of this to try to reclaim their lands.

With Outremer under threat from Saladin’s armies, strong leadership is more important than ever, but the young king of Jerusalem, Baldwin IV, has been forced to confront an unwelcome truth: he is suffering from leprosy and can expect an early and unpleasant end to his life. As rival Poulain lords begin plotting and scheming to become the influence behind the next king or queen, the Saracens advance further into Outremer, with their eye on Jerusalem itself…

The Land Beyond the Sea is a fascinating novel. I have read a lot about Europe in the medieval period, but not so much about other parts of the world. Apart from Elizabeth Chadwick’s Templar Silks, I can’t really think of anything else I’ve read that focuses entirely on the Holy Land and its people. As my knowledge of the subject was so limited, I didn’t always know how or when a character would die, or who they would marry, or what the outcome of a battle would be, which made a nice change from reading about the Tudors or the Wars of the Roses, where I usually have a good idea of what is going to happen next! It also meant that it wasn’t a particularly easy read; the number of characters introduced in the first half of the book was overwhelming, especially as so many of them were used as viewpoint characters, which made it difficult to really settle into the story. By the middle of the novel, though, I felt that I was getting to know some of them much better and they were starting to feel like real people rather than just names on the page and from this point on I really enjoyed the rest of the book.

Most of the novel is written from the perspective of the Franks, with a focus on three of them in particular: Baldwin, the ‘Leper King’, who is depicted as a courageous and intelligent young man determined to take care of his kingdom until his illness makes it impossible; William, Archbishop of Tyre, tutor to Baldwin, whose chronicle History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea is one of our most important sources of information on the Kingdom of Jerusalem; and Balian d’Ibelin, one of the leading Poulain noblemen who, due to the respect he commands amongst the other lords and his marriage to the king’s stepmother Maria Comnena, often finds himself drawn into the kingdom’s military and political affairs. I’ve noticed that a few other readers have said they found Balian too good to be true, or even anachronistic, but I disagree – there are plenty of other characters in the book who are selfish, weak or untrustworthy, so why shouldn’t there also be one who is decent and honourable? Balian was the only character I fully connected with emotionally; I sympathised with him as he struggled with some very difficult decisions and shared his frustration at the behaviour of some of the other Franks whose inability to put the welfare of the kingdom before their own interests led Jerusalem towards disaster.

We do occasionally see things from the Saracen point of view, particularly when Balian crosses paths with Saladin and his brother al-Adil, and I think Penman does give a balanced portrayal of both sides in the conflict. Although for most of the book the Saracens are the ‘enemy’, whenever the perspective switches to their side we see that Saladin and al-Adil are more admirable than many of the Franks, are prepared to be reasonable in negotiations and to show compassion where necessary. My only complaint is that I would have liked to have spent more time with them instead of just a few pages here and there.

As with Sharon Penman’s other books, this one has clearly been very well researched and her afterword and author’s note are almost as interesting as the story itself. Apart from maybe two or three words and phrases out of a 700 page book, I didn’t have any problems with inappropriately modern language (and I’m usually the first to complain about that sort of thing). However, I didn’t love this one as much as some of her others such as The Sunne in Splendour or Falls the Shadow, which I think is down to finding the writing slightly dry in places and the lack of emotional impact until nearer the end. Still, I really enjoyed The Land Beyond the Sea and am determined to find time soon to read the final book in Penman’s Welsh Princes trilogy, The Reckoning, which has been waiting on my shelf for years!

Book 1/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Thanks to Pan Macmillan for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Cruel as the Grave by Sharon Penman

This is the second book in Sharon Penman’s Justin de Quincy mystery series set in medieval England. I liked but didn’t love the first one, The Queen’s Man, which is why it has taken me a while to get round to continuing, but I’m pleased to report that I found Cruel as the Grave a stronger and more enjoyable book. You could start with this one if you wanted to – there are some recurring characters but it works perfectly well as a standalone mystery.

In this book, set in 1193, Justin de Quincy, illegitimate son of the Bishop of Chester, is investigating the murder of Melangell, a young Welsh girl found dead in a London churchyard. The main suspects are the two sons of a wealthy merchant – the handsome, favoured eldest son, Geoffrey Aston, and his bitter, envious, younger brother Daniel. The Aston family are expecting Justin to clear the boys’ names, but as he delves deeper into the circumstances surrounding Melangell’s death, he is not sure he will be able to do that. The more he learns about the girl, a poor pedlar’s daughter, the more he begins to feel an affinity with her and he becomes determined to bring her killer to justice no matter what.

Meanwhile, two other brothers are also causing problems for Justin. The King of England, Richard I – the Lionheart – has been captured by the Duke of Austria and handed over as a prisoner to the Holy Roman Emperor. His mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, is looking for a way to free him from captivity. In Richard’s absence, his younger brother John is plotting to take the crown for himself and has seized control of Windsor Castle. As Justin has assisted Eleanor in the past, she turns to him again for help.

Justin’s two missions are quite separate – one having implications for the whole country and the other much more intimate, affecting only a small number of people – but there are some parallels, such as the relationship between Geoffrey and Daniel resembling the one between Richard and John. The two storylines alternate throughout the book, but plenty of time is devoted to each one and I found them both interesting. As a murder mystery it is more tightly plotted than the first book in the series and although the culprit turned out to be the person I had suspected almost from the beginning, I still enjoyed watching the truth unfold.

Penman is better known for her long, sweeping historical novels such as Here Be Dragons and The Sunne in Splendour. Her mystery novels are much shorter, quicker reads but they still immerse the reader in the medieval period, giving us enough information to set the story in its historical context without going into a huge amount of detail. Justin himself, although perfectly likeable, continues to be slightly bland and forgettable, but the characters around him are strong and vibrant; his relationship with the queen’s lady, Claudine, is particularly intriguing and develops further in this book. I also loved Penman’s portrayal of the future King John – charismatic, complex and unpredictable:

Unlike Durand, John was not hostile. He seemed curious, almost friendly, as if welcoming a distraction midst the monotony of the siege. The Prince of Darkness. Justin wondered suddenly if John knew about Claudine’s private jest. He suspected that John would have been flattered, not offended. He must not let down his guard with this man. John could as easily doom him with a smile as with a curse.

I’ll think about reading the other two books in the series next time I’m in the mood for a medieval murder mystery, but first I really need to read The Reckoning, the final book in her Welsh Princes Trilogy, which I’ve had on my shelf since finishing the previous one, Falls the Shadow!

I am counting this book towards the R.I.P XIII Challenge (category: mystery).

The Queen’s Man by Sharon Penman

The Queens Man Having read and loved three of Sharon Penman’s historical fiction novels – The Sunne in Splendour, Here Be Dragons and Falls the Shadow – I’ve been interested in trying her series of historical mysteries set in medieval England. I downloaded the first in the series, The Queen’s Man, when it was offered as the Kindle Daily Deal on Amazon a while ago and have been waiting for the right time to read it.

The Queen’s Man introduces us to Justin de Quincy who, as the novel begins in December 1192, has just discovered that he is the illegitimate son of the Bishop of Chester. Furious that his father will not acknowledge their relationship, Justin sets out on a journey to London where he hopes to start a new life. Before he reaches London, however, he witnesses a murder on a snowy road just outside Winchester. As the killers flee the scene, the dying man – a goldsmith called Gervase Fitz Randolph – gives Justin a letter and makes him promise to deliver it to Queen Eleanor in London.

Eleanor of Aquitaine, widow of Henry II, is anxiously awaiting news of her son, King Richard I, who has disappeared while on crusade. As the weeks go by with no word of the missing king, it’s starting to look likely that he is dead and Eleanor’s youngest son, John, Count of Mortain, is getting ready to claim the throne for himself. Justin de Quincy’s arrival at court in possession of a bloodstained letter gives the Queen a clue as to Richard’s fate – but she still wants to know more.

As Justin was the only witness to the murder and the only person able to identify the killers, the Queen commissions him to investigate. Who was responsible for Gervase’s death? Was it a member of the goldsmith’s own family who wanted him dead or could it have been John who paid the murderers to steal the letter before it could reach Eleanor?

I enjoyed The Queen’s Man; it doesn’t compare with Penman’s straight historical novels – it lacks the depth and the emotional impact – but I didn’t mind that as I knew from the beginning that this would be a different type of book. While the plot and characters (with some obvious exceptions) are fictional, the historical background is as accurate and detailed as you would expect from Penman, with lots of interesting snippets of information that bring the 12th century to life: a visit to both a lazar house (hospital for lepers) and a medieval horse fair are incorporated, for example, and there’s a fascinating description of ‘trial by ordeal’ using hot cauldrons.

As a murder mystery, the plot is quite complex with plenty of suspects and some red herrings – although it’s slightly disappointing that some important information is withheld from the reader until near the end, so it would have been difficult to have guessed the solution before it was revealed.

The Queen’s Man has an interesting variety of supporting characters, ranging from innkeeper’s widow, Nell, and the under-sheriff of Winchester, Luke de Marston, to one of Queen Eleanor’s ladies, the beautiful Claudine. My only concern is that I found Justin de Quincy himself very bland. Based on this first novel, I wouldn’t have thought he was a strong enough character to build a whole series around. I could be wrong about him, though, and I’m still interested enough to want to read the next book, Cruel as the Grave, at some point to see how his story continues.

Falls the Shadow by Sharon Penman

Falls the Shadow Although I just finished reading this book at the weekend, it was actually one of the first books I started in 2014. While I think Penman’s novels are wonderful, they are not quick reads, for me at least; they’re long, complex and emotionally intense and I like to give them the time and attention they deserve.

Falls the Shadow is the second in the Welsh Princes trilogy which began with Here Be Dragons, the story of King John’s daughter Joanna and her husband Llewellyn Fawr, Prince of Gwynedd. Falls the Shadow begins where Here Be Dragons ended, but while you may prefer to read them in order so that the end of the previous book is not spoiled for you, it’s not essential. This is a complete novel in itself and tells the story of Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester, the French nobleman who ruled England for more than a year after leading a rebellion against King Henry III in 1264.

The story begins with Simon visiting his cousin, the Earl of Chester, to ask him to restore to him the earldom of Leicester which he believes is rightfully his. The Earl agrees to his request, but Simon’s visit is also successful in another way because it is here that he meets his future wife, Eleanor (known as Nell), the sister of King Henry III. Henry reluctantly agrees to the marriage between Simon and Nell, but a dispute over debts soon leads to Simon being temporarily exiled from England – and this is only the start of the turbulent relationship between the two men.

In contrast to Henry, who is portrayed as a weak, incompetent king, Simon is a great soldier and leader who believes in a more democratic form of government. Simon’s growing disillusionment with Henry, as well as his reluctance to abandon his principles and his hopes for England, leads him into war against his King. As one character comments, “it was not treason, was but a dream bred before its time”.

We are also reacquainted with some of the Welsh characters we first met in Here Be Dragons. After Llewellyn Fawr’s death, we see that the united Wales he had worked so hard to achieve is now at risk of division and disintegration again as his descendants fight amongst themselves. It seems that only his grandson, another Llewellyn, shares his vision of a strong and independent Wales. Llewellyn’s family have some blood ties with the English royal family (Joanna was the half-sister of Henry and Nell) and the events in England also have an impact on the lives of our Welsh characters.

Thanks to Dan Jones’ book on the Plantagenets which I read recently, I was able to begin Falls the Shadow knowing some of the basic facts surrounding the de Montfort rebellion and the reigns of Henry III and his son, Edward I, but this is still a period of history I know very little about. I think this was actually an advantage because it meant the story felt fresh and new to me and I didn’t always know what was going to happen next. I am always amazed by the accuracy of Penman’s novels, right down to the smallest details, and impressed by both the extent of her research and the fact that so much information has survived through so many centuries! The way in which one particular character died, for example, seemed a bit too dramatic to be likely, but when I looked it up, yes, that was how it really happened.

Penman is also one of the few authors who writes battle scenes that I actually enjoy reading. She manages to explain the tactics and strategies in a way that I can understand and follow without becoming bored or confused. There are two main battles in this novel, both part of the Second Barons’ War – the Battle of Lewes and the Battle of Evesham (described by the medieval chronicler Robert of Gloucester as “the murder of Evesham for battle it was none”).

I loved this book, but it did feel slightly unbalanced. In the first half the Welsh story runs parallel with the English one, but in the second half Simon and Nell’s story dominates completely and very little time is spent with the Welsh characters. Having finished the book and read the author’s note, she says this was intentional; there was too much material to fit into one novel, so she made the decision to devote this one to Simon and the next one to the Princes of Wales. At first I was disappointed that the Welsh storyline was virtually abandoned halfway through the book, as I was enjoying following the rivalries between Llewellyn’s sons, Davydd and Gruffydd, and later between his grandson, the younger Llewellyn, and his three brothers, but I didn’t mind too much because Simon’s story was so compelling as well.

I didn’t realise quite how much Penman had made me love Simon until I reached the end of his story. Not knowing much about the real Simon de Montfort, it’s possible that she has romanticised his character, but I do think she did a good job of showing both his good points and his flaws. As with The Sunne in Splendour (Penman’s Richard III novel) where I approached the final chapters with a growing sense of dread, it was the same with this book as I knew there wasn’t going to be a happy ending – and yes, it was as tragic and heartbreaking as I’d expected, and yes, I cried! I’m now looking forward to the final book in the trilogy, The Reckoning, and hoping to enjoy it as much as the previous two.

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!

New book arrivals

As a change from all the book reviews I’ve been posting recently I thought I’d share with you some of the new books I’ve acquired in the last couple of weeks.

Touch by Alexi Zentner – I’ve already finished reading this novel about a Canadian gold mining town and I would highly recommend it – it’s beautifully written with some haunting imagery and elements of magical realism.

Here Be Dragons by Sharon Penman – I bought this secondhand copy for myself because I loved The Sunne in Splendour and want to try another of Penman’s books. This one is set in 13th century Wales.

The Report by Jessica Francis Kane – I’ve seen so many positive reviews of this book recently and am interested in learning more about the Bethnal Green tube disaster.

The Map of Time by Felix Palma – This book is set in Victorian London and features characters such as H.G. Wells, Jack the Ripper and Bram Stoker. This really sounds like something I should love, so I hope it lives up to my expectations.

Gillespie and I by Jane Harris – I was delighted to win a copy of this book from LibraryThing Early Reviewers. I haven’t heard much about it but it looks and sounds wonderful.

Have you read any of these?

The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Penman

“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!