From New York Times best-selling novelist Sharon Kay Penman comes the stunning story of a great medieval warrior-king, the accomplished and controversial son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine: Richard the Lionheart. A powerful tale of intrigue, war, and diplomacy, Lionheart plays out against the roiling conflicts of love and loyalty, passion and treachery, all set against the rich textures of the Holy Land.
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Lionheart the review I have read Lionheart twice and have just had the extreme pleasure of listening to it. Yes finally a Penman novel on audio. The Narrator Emily Grey does a fine job and one of the things I like most about listening to an audio book is for the pronunciation of languages I am unfamiliar with. Ms. Penmen’s works are dense and take concentration, the world often fades away as I read or in this case listen to her work, and when I am interrupted it takes time for me to come back to myself. Lionheart is the 4th book in the Angevin saga which will end up spanning 5 books. The 5th book is also a bridge to her earlier work: Here be Dragons and the accompanying books collectively known as the Welsh trilogy. But all of Ms. Penman’s books can stand alone. I am a devotee of Penman’s work and have read and reread all of her books. She never ceases to amaze me with her skill; her writing is as close to perfection as one could ask. She is a novelist true but she offers characters so fully etched that at times you have to remember to tell yourself that besides the thorough research, the rest is supposition. She gets the psychology of the characters right, and their reactions to situations are so real that it is uncanny. She knows the history, customs, morals, the religion and the political climate of the time period, I feel very comfortable with her conclusions.
I've been hoping Penman's novels would appear in audio for years; I'm still hoping her earlier novels will. While I found Lionheart to be a little disappointing after a long wait (for both story and format), it's still miles above the bodice-ripping dreck that usually passes for historical fiction, and Emily Gray's narration is outstanding. In all her novels, Penman's historical detail is generally accurate and outstanding--and provides the setting, but otherwise lives in the details, where it belongs; her characters, both historical and fictional are fairly well-developed--given the enormous number of complex inter-relationships involved in a novel of this scope, it's pretty amazing to find anyone besides a central figure with any discernible personality. Lionheart falls somewhat short on those counts, having quite a lot of exposition, which I don't recall noticing in Penman before, and quite a lot of one-dimensional major characters (several of the secondary characters, however--Philip in particular--are much more interestingly faceted), and, worse, reduces Richard to a colorless warrior-king. This may actually be one of the more realistic portrayals of him, but what makes Coeur de Lion such a fascinating figure is the all the high adventure and romantic fable. Even in proper historical analyses, including those acknowledging he was a pretty dreadful monarch, he comes across larger than life. This deconstructed version of him seems uninspired at best. Granted, Pamela Kaufman's Shield of Three Lions (alas, unavailable in audio) is a tough act to follow, but Penman's own When Christ and his Saints Slept set high expectations for her treatment of the Angevins. Her novels since have been successively less fulfilling, and this latest in the series just lacks poetry.
Perhaps it got my attention mainly because other authors taking on Richard generally make much of his legendary homosexuality (whether to celebrate it, excuse it, or dismiss it) and very, very little of his marriage, but with Penman's treatment of Richard's relationship with Berengaria, it struck me that most of the significant marriages in her works have a little too much in common. Her created characters all marry for love (and they tend to fall in love with other created characters whose circumstances--e.g., blindness, illegitimate birth--would have otherwise limited their marital prospects despite their innate goodness as people), and that's all right, but there are just too many arranged and/or royal marriages in Penman's novels involving deep and abiding love despite a fundamental mismatch, say age, outlook, political association, family ties, all of the above... Even where marriages are meant to be loveless, there appears to be at the very least unrequited love, whatever the character in question may tell herself. The marriages that end unhappily tend to be between two very strong characters (such as Henry and Eleanor) whose deep and abiding love is understandable, as is their eventual conflict, but the transitions from bliss to hostility tend to be glossed over, if not ignored altogether. And everyone still loves each other in the end. The only marriages I can think of off the top of my head that are effectively loveless are those that will end in annulment. The exception that makes the rule is Maude and Geoffrey (and even they have some sort of grudging and unacknowledged moments), who just hated each other. I do not doubt that love could often grow out of arranged marriages, but Richard and Berengaria are the straw that broke the camel's suspension of disbelief that it happened so regularly, especially in a period when love was neither required nor expected in noble marriages (it was, after all, a conceit of courtly love, that the object of one's affection could not be one's own spouse). Penman's novels are really historical fiction and not period romance, but with Lionheart, it seems like she's trying too obviously to throw a sop to attract those who read Chadwick and Gregory. Also: despite everything, this Berengaria is so pious, filial, self-effacing, and just generally insipid that it was hard to want her to win Richard's heart. She's one of Penman's least interesting female protagonists ever.
This is not Penman's best. Even so, it's testament to her skill that this relatively pedestrian account of the Third Crusade is much, much better than most anything else you'll find in the genre. If you like historical romance, you may find this plodding and tedious, but if you like more accuracy, personality, and less attention to clothes and jewels (and far less sex), Penman is one of the best authors of historical fiction out there, and Lionheart, though not great, is pretty darn good.