When Christ and His Saints Slept, Sharon Kay Penman
Another of Sharon Kay Penman's wonderful works. This is the first of a trilogy about Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. It took me a little while to get into this book, longer than it took with "Sunne" but after about half way I started picking up speed. Having never read anything about the struggle between Maude and Stephen, this book was a real eye opener.
Henry I (son of William the Conqueror) loses his only legitimate son when he drowns in the sinking of the White Ship and ends up naming his daughter, the Empress Maude, as his sole heir. Many of the barons of England don't like the thought of a woman ruling them (and they don't like Maude's second husband, Geoffrey of Anjou, who she was forced to marry) and many try to convince Stephen of Blois (grandson of William the Conqueror through William's daughter Adela) that HE should claim the throne of England. As it happens, when Henry I dies Maude prepares to head to England to claim her crown and then hears that Stephen has claimed and been crowned King of England. Thus starts one of the most turbulent times of civil war in English history.
The story is told through several POV's: Maude's, Stephen's, and Ranulf's (a fictional illegitimate younger brother of Maude). You also get, at some points in the story, the viewpoint of the common people of England who really didn't care who was ruling over them as long as they had peace and their families were safe. This war that lasted somewhere around 15 years (give or take a few) really brought England to a low spot. I was amazed at how many towns and villages were ransacked and burned, how many innocent citizens died, and how much flip flopping of loyalties occurred. For the people of England, it really was a time "when Christ and His saints slept." Towards the end of the story you see more and more of Maude's son, Henry (the future Henry II), and Eleanor of Aquitaine. When Stephen looses his oldest son Eustace(thank goodness!) he ends up naming Henry as his heir. The story comes to a close not long after Henry and Eleanor are crowned King and Queen of England.
The characters in this story are what every good writer should strive to create. The main characters are not clear cut good, bad, etc. They all have depth to them which is wonderful. I found myself at different times liking, being aggravated by, wanting to slap or hug, several of the main characters. I felt sorry for Maude because she was only trying to claim what was rightfully her's and the people of England really treated her badly. Then at the same time, I wanted to smack her because she really didn't help her cause by acting the way she did (which ultimately cost her the crown). Stephen was a likable guy but, besides being a good battle commander, was completely unsuitable to be King(and he DID steal Maude's crown). I could feel some pity for him with all this troubles he had with his barons but he did bring it on himself (just as Maude did). Ranulf was an interesting character to add into the story. You get a different perspective of what was happening through his eyes. He was very loyal to his sister and seemed to have his head on straight most of the time. I was okay with him through most of the novel though I wanted to hit him because he just couldn't let go of Annora, even though it was obvious that she wasn't going to leave her husband. Obviously Henry and Eleanor of Aquitaine figure into the story more towards the end but I'm not going to go into detail about them here as their story is told more in full in the next book. There are many other interesting characters in the story (Geoffrey of Anjou, Stephen's calculating brother the Bishop of Winchester, Stephen's HORRIBLE son Eustace, Maude and Ranulf's brother Robert, Stephen's queen Matilda, John Marshal, etc, etc) but I can't sit here and talk about all of them unfortunately.
I really enjoyed this story as it covered a part of British history that I previously had read very little about. I think the best part came towards the end, once you get more and more of Maude's son Henry and Eleanor. Their story is amazing and continues in the next book Time and Chance.