Here Be Dragons, Sharon Kay Penman
This first novel in Penman's Welsh trilogy is yet another example of why this author is so wonderful and one of my favorites. You could make the argument that this is the story of three different people: Llewelyn of Wales, King John of England, and Joanna, John's illegitimate daughter and Llewelyn's wife. Their stories are woven together beautifully and this was a book I had trouble putting down! I think the love story between Llewelyn and Joanna woven together with the wonderful story of Wales is what had me enthralled.
The scope of the story is rather large, over twenty years pass between the covers and many events are covered: Llewelyn's early years, John's coming to the English throne, his constant struggle with Wales, the constant trouble with his barons, and Llewelyn's struggles in Wales. Thanks to marvelous writing and character development, the reader will really connect with the three main characters in this novel. Penman gives us a glimpse of what helped form Llewelyn into the strong man he became. It would be really hard NOT to fall in love with Llewelyn - he is such a fair and understanding, kind and honorable person, not to mention extremely intelligent. His determination to try to unite Wales was wonderful and really showed how brillant the man was. I was completely caught up in his story and I thoroughly enjoyed getting a glimpse into medieval Wales. There is quite a bit of description of how the Welsh felt about battles and war and how they fought them. As for King John, we really see two very different sides to this man - the very caring and loving father (I really loved the whole scene when Joanna is finally brought to him, it was so sweet) and the very ruthless and disliked king. While it was a bit hard to wrap my mind around a John that was extremely caring and loving towards his children, Joanna in particular, it was wonderful to read. Seeing how John was around his children really made a contrast with how ruthless he was in his later years as king. I believe this really helps the reader understand Joanna's torn feelings when it comes to her father. Joanna was given to Llewelyn as her father's way of trying to exert some control over the Welsh leader and in the beginning she is understandably very scared to be thrown into a world that is so alien to her. Through the course of the novel we see her mature from a young girl to a mature young woman who knows she must accept the consequences of her actions. There really are some priceless moments as she grows, most notably the scene when she orders Llewelyn's bed to be burned. She does come to deeply love Llewelyn which really causes her to be torn between him and her father. She has a very hard time accepting the things John has done and her feelings of guilt over his actions lead her to commit her act of betrayal. Llewelyn's eventual forgiveness of that act just make him even that much more wonderful in my mind.
Besides the three main characters, there are many other very colorful and well developed figures throughout the story (some of the most annoying being Llewelyn's horrible son Gruffydd and William de Braose). They all add to the whole picture of medieval Wales and England that the author is creating. Penman's meticulous details of life in Wales had me spell bound - the images she can create are magnificent and it is wonderful to be able to picture such a distant time and place in my mind. I would highly recommend this novel. I believe it will appeal to a wide variety of readers and I do not think you will be disappointed!
*As I mentioned, this is the first book in a trilogy. The next installment is Falls the Shadow, which focuses on Simon de Monfort and his relationship with Henry III (John's son). The last novel, The Reckoning is about Llewelyn's grandson, Llewelyn, and his struggles against the English king.