Wednesday 6 January 2010

Falls The Shadow - Sharon Penman

In "Falls the Shadow" Penman continues her trilogy of the turbulent times in Wales and England through the troubled thirteenth century.

We meet again characters introduced in a peripheral fashion in "Here Be Dragons" - the grandson of Llewelyn Fawr, also called Llewelyn; the sister of both Joanna and Henry III of England, Eleanor often called Nell; and Elen, daughter of Llewelyn Fawr and Joanna.

This tale takes us back to just before the death of Joanna - a time of relative peace between Wales and England. It centres upon the characters of Nell and Simon de Montfort - a celebrated soldier whose silvered tongue won him back an earldom from the Earl of Chester - and their conflict with the King of England.

Simon is a man with a zeal for reform, which includes making a King accountable to his Lords and bishops rather than just to God. Clearly, this was a view that had little appeal for Henry of England - believing himself to be the Anointed and chosen of God - and the two men (plus their sons) got caught up in a terrible conflict that culminated on the battlefield.

Although the novel is as well written as any of Penman's historical epics, with rich details of medieval life, it is not as fast reading. I attributed this mainly to the fact that I had very little sympathy or liking for many of the characters. I felt that Simon and Nell's relationship was based upon a casual disregard for religious oaths - since Nell had dedicated herself to God after the death of her first husband. The fact that they then defied and lied to the King of England - implying that Nell was with child to ensure his agreement - left me feeling as though they were due a comeuppance.

Add to that the feeble character of Henry III (widely held to be one of England's most incompetent kings), whose petty motivations caused so many of the issues through the novel; his arrogant and dishonourable son Edward; the the carousing sons of Nell and Simon, and it doesn't feel as though there are many characters that deserve liking or respect.

I will read the third book in the trilogy, but I was glad that "Here Be Dragons" was my first foray into Penman's work, since it is preferable in every way.

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