Book Review: “Lionheart”

by Sharon Kay Penman

ISBN-13: 9780399157851

Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated

This historical novel about Richard I – aka Richard Coeur de Lion or Lionheart, or Malik Ric as the ‘infidels’ call him – begins just after the death of Richard’s father, Henry II, and tells the story of the Third Crusade. While I am a student of English history and know a considerable amount about its royalty and their stories, I must admit straight on that Richard I is not one of my favorites. That being said, Penman uses her meticulous research skills and storytelling ability to create an expansive novel that almost makes Richard appear, well, human.

Like his parents, Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard is larger than life, deservedly renowned for both his skill in battle, and his amazing good fortune as a true risk-taker. On his journey to Outremer – ‘beyond the sea’, the Crusader kingdom in the Middle East – he goes to the aid of his sister, Joanna, widowed Queen of Sicily, who is for all intents and purposes made a royal hostage following her husband’s death; defeats the tyrant king of Cyprus, Isaac Comnenus, and marries his young bride, Berengaria of Navarre.

Not much is known of Berengaria, but Penman manages to create a feasible and believable relationship between Richard and his bride – who stayed in the Middle East with Richard throughout the crusade – and, in the process, doesn’t diminish Richard as the heroic, brave soul he was for the sake of domestic bliss, which never really existed.

The complex relationship between Richard and Philip of France is well told, as is how their long-standing enmity affected the outcome of the Third Crusade. Also, while Saladin never actually appears in the novel, Penman expertly weaves in the fact that Richard was not all about war with the Moslems, and, rather, was very interested in their culture and beliefs, despite only giving up the crusade when circumstances involving his errant brother, John, back in England warranted his leaving for home. While I found some of the battle scenes somewhat tedious, readers will come away with vivid accounts of the dangers of war that not only exist[ed?] on the battlefield, but also from disease, extreme heat, the elements and ever-present treachery.

As is always true of Penman’s novels, some of her best storytelling involves those characters not based on actual people. They complete the tapestry and supply the viewpoint of historical events from a different, but well researched and, therefore, realistic, perspective. The relationship between Morgan, Richard’s Welsh knight and cousin, and Mariam, half-sister to Joanna’s late husband, is especially exciting and touching.

Above all, Lionheart is a darn good read, well-researched, entertaining, and believable. I recommend all of Sharon Kay Penman’s historical novels, especially The Sunne in Splendour, a sympathetic novel about Richard III and the ‘Cousin’s War’ (Wars of the Roses), Here Be Dragons, a novel of Llewellyn Fawr and Joanna, illegitimate daughter of King John, and Time and Chance, the beginning of her series of novels about the Angevins, of which Lionheart is the most recent, with A King’s Ransom – relating Richard’s two-year imprisonment by Duke Leopold of Austria and the remainder of Richard’s life – due to be released on 17 October 2012.

– Suzanne Stevens

Suzanne Stevens, 55, has spent most of her life being creative, and has been writing from a very early age. After almost 30 years in advertising/PR, she decided to follow a few different paths, including writing (which she still loves), especially travel writing, painting, jewelry design and photography.  Soon she’ll be selling her photographs online at suzannestevens.artfire.com, where she still sells handmade jewelry. Stay tuned…

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