Falls the Shadow, Sharon Kay Penman
This is the second book in Penman's Welsh trilogy and covers the life of Simon de Montfort, a man who really was ahead of his time when it comes to government, thus causing him to be completely at odds with most of the nobility of his age. He helped bring about the start of Parliament in England which was not looked on favorably by Henry III (what monarch would want to give up some of his power?). Penman's exceptional writing once again shines brightly.
Simon de Montfort was born a Frenchman and managed to "talk his way" into a relative's English earldom. He then ended up marrying the English king's sister, Nell, sowing the seeds of dislike in the monarch. Simon becomes completely fed up with Henry's inability to rule his kingdom and tries to create a more democratic government, trying to institute such things as Parliament, to help the monarch. He suffers through several periods of exile in France for his efforts, though going to help his monarch in times of military need which gets him back in England each time. Eventually, dispite Simon's good intentions, Henry sees him as a traitor which leads to a rebellion. This book is full of very volatile characters with very big personalities, all very well described and their growth and change throughout very well documented. I was really amazed at how completely inept Henry was as a king and wondered how he managed to keep his throne. I could fully sympathize with Simon in his annoyance with his monarch's complete lack of backbone, though I could see where he could have gone about things differently, thus not angering Henry quite as much (basically calling your king an inbecile is not going to sit well). Simon really is a very human "hero" in this novel - he is championing a very noble cause and is a good, decent, and honorable man but he is also has quite a few flaws. I really feel it is his flaws that really made me cheer for him; he was so REAL. Henry's son, the future Edward I, made himself highly dislikable in my eyes with his constant betrayals and going back on his word. With as often as he stabbed people in the back it is hard to see how any man would trust him once he became king. I can see why he was such a powerful king (people probably feared him) but I will never look on him in the same light again. Interspersed with Simon and Henry's story is the continuing Welsh story - this time focusing on Llewelyn Fawr's grandson, Llewelyn, and his struggles against his brothers Owain and Davydd as he fights to keep alive his grandfather's wonderful dream of a strong and united Wales. He has to deal with the same issues his grandfather did - Welsh lords that are greedy and don't want to see the ancient ways changed (even if they would really help) and relatives all too eager to betray him. His is not the main story here though it is interwoven with Simon's throughout.
I enjoyed this second book though not nearly as much as the first in the trilogy (but really, how can you NOT immensely enjoy reading about Llewelyn Fawr and Joanna?). I felt a bit bogged down in the middle with all the discussion about the Provisions and such. At times it was confusing to keep up with who was allied with which side and who betrayed whom (and there was quite a bit of this going on). However things really picked up towards the end as events snowballed to the climax. I felt that the descriptions and details of the various main players in this novel really set it apart from others - they are so wonderfully described that it feels as if I knew them personally. I can not wait to read the last book in the series, The Reckoning, which truly focuses on Llewelyn and his final struggles in Wales.