Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Here be Dragons

Here be Dragons
© 1985 Sharon Penman
700 pages             

 Here Be Dragons takes readers to the Welsh Marches in 13th century England. King John, remembered for losing England’s ancestral holdings in France and being gelded by his own barons via the Great Charter , reigns. His struggles with the powers of Europe are not limited to the Continent, however, for restive Wales is far from defeated. The Welsh stand apart,  increasingly united under one very savvy and battle-hardened prince, and not even the marriage of John’s daughter to said prince will neutralize them.  Although this is first in a trilogy about the feuding brothers of the prince, Here be Dragons is wholly dominated by the relationship between King John,  Llewyln of Wales, and Joanna – the woman who stood between them.  John’s illegitimate daughter and Llewyln’s unpopular Norman wife, Joanna will spent decades trying to keep the peace between the two in a feud that becomes increasingly bitter. The appeal of the novel is the balancing act she plays between two more or less sympathetic men in opposition, though both have faults and John is far harder to redeem. (Such a feat is made possibly only by having a narrator who sees him as kindly father who rescues her from impoverished bastardy.)  After John’s demise, the similarly acrimonious relationship between Joanna, her eldest stepson Gruffydd, and her natural son Dafvdd,  rises to the top.  It’s a basic case of sibling rivalry, with Gruffydd loathing his half-Norman half-brother and fearing that the influence of  the “Norman witch” will lead young Dafydd to usurp him as the heir apparent.   The writing consists largely of characters talking or arguing, interspersed with bits of historic and cultural background information filling in gaps.  There’s more nonfictional narrative than fictional, but Joanna’s ordeal – and the spotlight on Wales’ powers --   help overcome that, at least for the first five hundred pages. (After that the arguments and mini-lectures on Welsh history grow wearisome, but happily there’s a late-game catastrophic failure of moral judgment to infuse some drama into the plot.)  For the reader who doesn’t mind a novel that’s half nonfiction, Here be Dragons offers a rare look at the Plantagenet from both inside and out.

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