Fiction is fun, but don't mess with the history

Monday, October 17, 2011

'Devil's Brood' by Sharon Kay Penman

A recent review of Penman's newest novel, Lionheart, induced me to detour from my early-American reading path to catch up on Penman's explorations of Henry and Eleanor's 12th-century world. Penman really is, in my opinion, one of the best historical novelists writing today, and I can give Devil's Brood straight 5's on my five criteria without even thinking much about it. She's probably not for everyone - there are times when the reader wonders, "where's the fiction?". Penman is so scrupulous about adhering to historical sources that it sometimes seems like you're reading a family biography rather than a novel. The saving grace is the way she creates wonderfully complex and subtly-nuanced fictionalized historical characters that seem so authentic. Certainly there is some modern bias, which is unavoidable, but it never jumps up to slap you in the face. To the extent that it's possible to make the minds of a 12th-century French-speaking royal family accessible to a modern English-speaking reader - without romanticizing or condescending - Penman does.

Devil's Brood is subtitled, "The last days of the tempestuous marriage of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine", and that sums it up pretty well. The story picks up where Time and Chance, the previous novel in Penman's "Plantagenet series", left off. It's April of 1172 and Henry is returning to Wales from Ireland, where he had gone to solidify his rule over the feuding Irish kings. Also, it was wise for Henry to be out of England following the death of Thomas Beckett, the climactic event of Time and Chance. The Devil's Brood referred to in the novel's title was Henry's four sons, who took turns scheming, defying and rebelling as they came of age and began to chafe under their father's authority. The novel concludes following the death of Henry in 1189. Lionheart will presumably take up the story at that point.

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