Historical Fiction By Sharon Kay Penman Review

Sharon Kay Penman has been one of my favorite authors since I was a teenager. Her novels focus on the Plantagenet family that ruled England for several centuries starting in the 12th century, and their contemporaries.

It would be admittedly be pretty tough to make the Plantagenets boring (they were some of England’s least boring rulers, and that says something!) but Penman’s novels are not only highly regarded for their historical accuracy, they’re also rip-roaring good reads, with plenty of action, romance, and intrigue to keep almost anyone enthralled. For such a male-dominated period of history, I like that she also puts a lot of focus on the female characters and their complex situations.

My Favorite Penman Novels: The Welsh Princes Trilogy

The Welsh Princes trilogy were the first Penman books I read, and are still my favorites. I think they have the most appealing characters (confession time: teenage me had a huge crush on both Llewelyns), although history being what it is, they’re also something of an emotional roller coaster, especially the second and third books.

Book 1: Here Be Dragons

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The first in the series focuses on Joanna, a bastard daughter of King John. (Yes, that King John.)

Joanna is married to the Welsh prince Llewelyn ab Iorwerth (more commonly remembered as Llewelyn Fawr, or Llewelyn the Great) at the age of 14, and soon finds herself torn between her loyalty to her beloved father (who is here given a more nuanced portrayal than usual) and husband, who she also grows to love deeply.

Joanna is nearly unique in the annals of royal wives in that she was caught in an adulterous relationship and not only forgiven by her husband but restored to full favor and position at court. (A Royal Affair demonstrates a much more common aftermath for such a situation.) By all accounts, Llewelyn was grief-stricken by her death some years later, and even founded a Franciscan friary in her honor, which was completed shortly before his own death. I thought Penman navigated this tricky and unusual situation well, and came up with a plausible explanation for it, given the apparent happiness of Llewelyn and Joanna’s marriage otherwise.

My rating:4.5 Stars (4.5 / 5)

Book 2: Falls the Shadow

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Book 2 continues with the deaths of most of the characters you grew to love in the first book (seriously, keep a tissue handy!) but introduces new ones in the form of Llewelyn Fawr’s grandson, Llewelyn ap Gruffydd, and Simon de Montfort, the reform-minded French husband of Joanna’s younger half-sister Eleanor (Nell), as they each contend with John’s weak and incompetent son Henry III, and the rise of Henry’s far stronger son, the future Edward I (Longshanks).

My rating:4.5 Stars (4.5 / 5)

Book 3: The Reckoning

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Don’t throw that tissue away yet! You’ll need it a few more times as Edward warms up for his future role as “Hammer of the Scots” by taking on the Welsh. Although I love them all, this is probably my favorite of the trilogy. Family drama, romance, and high tragedy abound.

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)

If you enjoy the Welsh Princes trilogy, I also recommend Edith Pargeter’s Brothers of Gwynedd Quartet, which focuses on the lives of Llewelyn ap Gruffydd and his brother Davydd.

The Prequels: Plantagenets series

Unfortunately, I’ve read only the first two of these so far, but the rest are on my to read list, eventually. Part of the reason I’ve been slow to get to them is that the later books focus heavily on Richard the Lionheart, who I’ve never liked. If anyone can make me like him, it’s probably Penman, but so far I haven’t got around to it.

  • Book 1: When Christ and His Saints Slept – The clash between Henry I’s daughter Maude (aka Matilda) and her cousin Stephen for the throne of England after Henry’s death, and the rise of the Plantagenet family. My rating:3 Stars (3 / 5)
  • Book 2: Time and Chance – The romance and early marriage of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and the rise and fall of Thomas Becket My rating:3 Stars (3 / 5)
  • Book 3: Devil’s Brood – Eleanor and Henry’s sons took sibling rivalry to new heights
  • Book 4: Lionheart – Richard the Lionheart’s ascension to the throne
  • Book 5: A King’s Ransom – The later years of Richard’s life

A Stand-alone Novel: The Sunne in Splendor

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An enjoyable piece of Richard III apologia. People familiar with Richard only as the cackling hunchback of Shakespeare’s play may not be aware that there’s a sizable percentage of historians convinced that Richard III was innocent of many, if not all, of the murders attributed to him, including an entire organization dedicated to clearing his name. If you’re interested in learning more about that, a couple other fun pieces of fictional apologia are The Daughter of Time and The Murders of Richard III.

I also highly recommend The Sunne in Splendor for fans of A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones. George R.R. Martin’s fantasy epic was partially inspired by the Wars of the Roses, and you’ll find many parallels between the stories, especially in A Game of Thrones.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

The Justin de Quincy Series

In addition to her bestselling historical fiction, Sharon Kay Penman has also written some historical mysteries set during Richard the Lionheart’s rule (although dealing much more with Eleanor of Aquitaine and then-Prince John than the absent king). While not as good as her historical fiction novels, they’re fun reads and do a good job of blending the fictional characters and events in with known historical facts. I’ve enjoyed them.

  1. The Queen’s Man
  2. Cruel as the Grave
  3. Dragon’s Lair
  4. Prince of Darkness

My rating:3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)

Trackbacks

  1. […] and his brother David, who are also two of the main protagonists in Sharon Kay Penman’s Welsh Princes trilogy. I thought it would be interesting to read another author’s version of the same story and I […]

  2. […] and his brother David, who are also two of the main protagonists in Sharon Kay Penman’s Welsh Princes trilogy. I thought it would be interesting to read another author’s version of the same story and I […]

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