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

Saturday, March 7, 2015

A King's Ransom, by Sharon Kay Penman (2014)

A King's Ransom is the long awaited sequel to 2011's Lionheart, by the extraordinary Sharon Kay Penman - and a rare opportunity for me to review a book less than a year old! This novel spans the last years in the life of King Richard I, 1192-1199, and is also the end of Penman's Angevin series (she has already written about Richard's brother and successor John I in Here Be Dragons).

The central thesis of this story is that Richard's capture and nearly-15-month imprisonment in Austria and Germany profoundly affected his mental state for the rest of his life. Richard's all-consuming hatred of his captor Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI, along with co-conspirator King Philip of France, completely determined the English king's agenda during the final five years of his reign. His incessant war against Philip and his allies impoverished England and devastated large swathes of France.

The life spans of the Angevin dynasty enabled a neat summing up of Penman's narrative. Richard died in warfare, as he had lived, and his sister Joanna died shortly after. Eleanor of Aquitaine outlived most of her children and saw her lifelong dedication to her family's fortunes descend finally onto the untrustworthy shoulders of her youngest son. John's inability to command the loyalty of the great lords who had supported Henry and Richard led to the rapid loss of much of the Angevin lands in France, but A King's Ransom ends shortly after Richard's death - before Eleanor's final years were spent watching that slow-motion disaster.    

As with Lionheart, this novel earns straight 5's on my 5 criteria. My only regret, really, is that four years elapsed between publication of the two novels. I can forget an awful lot of what I've read in four years, and found myself constantly having to review events briefly mentioned in A King's Ransom, which were dealt with thoroughly in Lionheart. Maybe that was a blessing in disguise, reinforcing through repetition my knowledge of that turbulent and fascinating historical period.

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