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Book Review: Lionheart by Sharon Kay Penman

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Lion­heart by Sharon Kay Pen­man is a his­tor­i­cal fic­tion book about Richard I and the Third Cru­sade. This is a well researched book which is fas­ci­nat­ing and exciting.

Richard I, bet­ter known in his nom de guerre “Lion­heart,” takes his vows seri­ously, includ­ing the one to free Jerusalem from Salah-a-Din. He leaves his king­dom and together with King Philip of France they make their way, with their armies, to the Holy Land.

Lion­heart is his­tor­i­cal fic­tion at its best. The research is impres­sive and Ms. Pen­man doesn’t try to fit the his­tory to her story, but writes the story around history.

I have always been fas­ci­nated by “Richard the Lionhearted,” the nick­name probably garnered from the “guest appear­ance” in Robin Hood which spurred up the imag­i­na­tion of an eight-year old boy more than sparked from his deeds.

The author brings King Richard to life, not only his bat­tle glory, but also the man in all his splen­dor, his sar­donic wit, bat­tle com­man­der genius and mis­un­der­stand­ing of women. Some­thing most men share. Richard, who thinks noth­ing of sac­ri­fic­ing his own life, ago­nized to no end about his bat­tle plans and min­i­miz­ing casu­al­ties. The bat­tle-scarred solider, who under­stands and respects his ene­mies, still under­stands the impor­tance of mak­ing an entrance, whether by land or by sea: “Richard began to curse, ‘Bleed­ing Christ! I was so sure that raven swine would hit us from the rear! Take over, Jaufre!'”

I enjoyed the descrip­tions of bat­tles, large and small, the tac­tics involved, the ago­niz­ing deci­sions com­man­ders must endure as well as the impos­si­ble logis­tics of tak­ing an army across the ocean with no means of sup­port. The author goes into great lengths describ­ing Richard’s suc­cess, some of it luck, but most of it metic­u­lous plan­ning and audac­ity, both in the field of diplo­macy and war.

While Richard I is cer­tainly the main fig­ure in Lion­heart, there are many oth­er his­tor­i­cal fig­ures. Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, his mother, Richard’s sis­ter Joanna and his wife Beren­garia all have a major roles in the novel, and are depicted in an inter­est­ing and involved manner.

I enjoyed this book tremen­dously, but be aware that this is not an easy novel to read. There are many char­ac­ters, each of them a world of their own, com­plex, multi-faceted with strange and fas­ci­nat­ing rela­tion­ships among them. The book also includes polit­i­cal strug­gles and intense back-stories, together with the fight­ing (they always go together, don’t they?).

While Lionheart ended at the end of the Third Cru­sade, Ms. Pen­man stated that Richard I’s life was so full that it would take more books to cover it. I, for one, am look­ing for­ward to the rest.

One of the ben­e­fits of hav­ing this blog is that I get intro­duced to writ­ers, new and estab­lished, whom I never got the chance to read. I’m extremely glad that I had a chance to review this book, and am plan­ning to read more of Ms. Penman’s books in the future. Not only are her books well received but her blog is one of the best author’s blogs I have encoun­tered. She writes about many inter­est­ing sub­jects and, best of all, about her his­tor­i­cal research.

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