Sharon Kay Penman is one of the main historical fiction writers that I love to read. As someone who does research as a career, I have a lot of trouble reading historic fiction, or watching those so-called ‘period’ movies. Often, there are just too many reasons to adjust or dramatize facts to create a story that is easier to sell to a modern audience. That is not something that can be said about Penman’s books, and she has published a total of 10 books. Here Be Dragons is the first in a trilogy about 13th and 14th century Wales and England. I will confess that I haven’t read the second two books in this trilogy, though I have read others she wrote. None of these books have to be read in order, but they do build on the characters in each. Someone who wanted to read the two main series, The Welsh Princes and The Plantagenets, would have to love long books, because all of these are hefty, most over 700 pages. The first one I ever read was Here Be Dragons, and it is still my favorite. I even wrote a paper on the historical accuracy of this book as an undergraduate, and I can say with confidence that there is almost nothing fictionalized that can be known. What makes this fiction is Ms. Penman’s ability to make the characters more than the one-dimensional creatures that are displayed in history, such as King John, probably the best know of the book.
One thing to remember about history is that it is always written by the victors. Ms. Penman does not take away from terrible things that were done by those in power, but she does make them human, and shows the progression of events that created their actions. The main character that Here Be Dragons focuses on is Joanna, a natural daughter of King John. (And yes, I was at first drawn to the book because we shared a first name! Though most historians call her Joan, Joanna is version that can be documented as well.) By picking someone who is less well known, Ms. Penman gains some freedom to take the story into the daily life of her characters and make them more human, without loosing the historic arc of the time period she is writing about. In this case, it is the last years of Welsh independence, before the arrival of Edward I and his complete conquering of Wales, which is the period that completes the trilogy. While this book is long, my feeling while reading it was there are no boring parts that feel like filler. The events just keep going, and you can easily get caught in the web of family intrigue, as well as difficulties and triumphs of the main characters. You will definitely get a different idea of King John than comes from Shakespeare or Robin Hood! And as I stated, if there was information to be found in historical accounts, Ms. Penman used all of them, so no one has reason to doubt the accuracy of the book. The ‘fictional’ part is to be found in the development of the characters and their thoughts and emotions, not in the actions they took or the events that occurred.
The other books by Ms. Penman, of which I have read 4 in total, are also very good, but if someone wants to try her books out, I recommend this one first, as it has remained my favorite. The Plantagenet series actually takes place earlier in time, and begins with the events of the White Ship, which was a tragedy in the 1100s that began the end of William the Conqueror’s line of succession. I have read the first of that group, When Christ and His Saints Slept, but it does have some parts that drag a bit, and is a bit longer than this one. If you are intimidated by the length of all of these books, you could try her much shorter series called the Justin de Quincy Mysteries, but I cannot speak for them as I haven’t read any of them. Unfortunately, there will not be any more published, as Ms. Penman died just this month on January 22 (I only discovered it as I was writing this review). Her last book was published in the UK two days before her death, and looks like it would have started a new series about the Crusades, called The Land Beyond the Sea. Rest in Peace, Ms. Penman.