Here Be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman
originally published 1985
Ballantine, 16th printing, 1993
Genre: Historical fiction, romance
Synopsis & Review: Thirteenth-century Wales is a divided country, ever at the mercy of England’s ruthless, power-hungry King John. Llewelyn, Prince of North Wales, secures an uneasy truce by marrying the English king’s beloved illegitimate daughter, Joanna, who slowly grows to love her charismatic and courageous husband. But as John’s attentions turn again and again to subduing Wales—and Llewelyn—Joanna must decide where her love and loyalties truly lie.
The turbulent clashes of two disparate worlds and the destinies of the individuals caught between them spring to life in this magnificent novel of power and passion, loyalty and lies. The book that began the trilogy that includes Falls the Shadow and The Reckoning, Here Be Dragons brings thirteenth-century England, France, and Wales to tangled, tempestuous life.
A word to the wise: If the cover of a historical novel features the word “tempestuous,” then there will be romance. That’s just how it works.
The Welsh trilogy (of which Here Be Dragons is the first, followed by Falls the Shadow, and The Reckoning, which are very good) remain my favorite Penman series, which some of my favorite characters. In Here Be Dragons, we find three major protagonists—Llewelyn, Joanna, and John–all often at loggerheads. Llewelyn as written by Penman is charismatic, virile, and everything desirable in a romantic hero. Joanna evokes sympathy right from the start with her piteous beginnings, and her relationship with John understandable, as are the mistakes she makes later. And John is such a curious figure, despised throughout English history, but Penman makes him entirely human, rather than an archetype of evil.
As usual, Penman keeps a quick pace, and her characters are complex and living creations. She keeps close to the history, creating fiction that serves the history, with adequate and believable motivations assigned to characters and causes. It helps that the turbulent period is full of incidents that would strain credulity if they weren’t a part of the historical record, such as the imprisonment of Eleanor of Brittany, Isabelle’s defection, Llewelyn’s forgiveness, and the fates of the many de Braoses. Unfortunately, at times Penman is rather didactic, and heavy-handed with excessive passages explaining history instead of making it evident. The only other problem I have with the novel is the often-stilted dialogue, which relies heavily on “speaking forsoothly,” and is weighed down by the aforementioned didaticism. Fortunately, the history is riveting enough to keep the narrative going and my interest high.
Read also: Falls the Shadow and The Reckoning by Sharon Kay Penman, The Dark is Rising Sequence by Susan Cooper, The Marsh King’s Daughter by Elizabeth Chadwick
Cover: A contemporary image on a WAY too busy background. WTF text!
Eleanor saw now how exhausted he truly was; his voice was slurred, husky with fatigue, his eyes hollowed and feverishly bright, at once triumphant and accusing. “It was not a question of faith, John,” she said carefully. “Do you not realize the extent of your victory? You have done what most men would swear to be impossible, covered some eighty miles as if you’d put wings to your horse, arrived in time to save me from capture, to take the town, all your enemies. This is a feat more than remarkable, it is well night miraculous.” She paused, and then said that which she knew he’d waited his life to hear, what she could at last say in utter sincerity: “Not even Richard could have hoped to equal what you did this day.”
John looked at her, saying nothing for a time. “I should have known that the highest praise you could offer would be a comparison with my sainted brother. Well, that is an honor I think I’ll decline, Madame. I’ve no longer any inclination to compete with a ghost.”
“Ah, Johnny …” Eleanor was suddenly and overwhelmingly aware of her own exhaustion, of the toll these last days had taken. “I am proud of you, I swear it,” she said softly. But she’d waited too long; John had already turned away.
17 November – 22 November