When Christ and His Saints Slept. Intrigued by the title, I glanced over it and discovered it was about a period of English history about which I knew very little, that being the reign of King Stephen. It also involved Eleanor of Aquitaine, the subject of another novel I had recently read and about whom I was becoming terribly interested. (I will not even mention the title of the other book because I have discovered, upon further research and reading, that it's garbage. It's only redeeming quality is that it led to me to discover real books about this great lady.) So I nabbed it and took it home...and thus began my great appreciation for the works of Sharon Kay Penman, whom I credit with my odd obsession with Middle Age England and all things involving the history of British royalty.
Someday I will do more in-depth reviews of her other novels, but I wanted to give that introduction by way of explaining how very excited I was to read Penman's latest novel, Lionheart. It is the continuation of the story my favorite of all royal families, the Angevins. Henry II, Eleanor, and their "devil's brood" never cease to fascinate me. Lionheart is the fourth book in the series that was started by the aforementioned Saints. It focuses on a man of great legend but not much fact, Richard I. I did not know much about Richard before starting the book. I had the Robin Hood version of him in my head, that of the long-lost crusading hero. I also had Penman's earlier, harsher treatment of him, for he had made a brief appearance at the beginning of her exquisite Welsh trilogy, Here Be Dragons. (A great joy in the life of a reader is discovering that your new favorite author has multiple series, each volume at least 500 pages long!!) I knew he was not terribly kind to his poor wife, and I knew he died without children, thus paving the way for that most wretched of English kings, John Lackland. Other than that, I didn't have much, so I couldn't wait for my student teaching semester to be over so I could read Lionheart with no guilt.
I was not disappointed. Penman has taken great pains to lift the man from the mires of the legend surrounding him and give him a flesh-and-blood makeover. She has created one of the most complex characters I have ever read from one of the most complex, controversial characters of the Middle Ages. It was as if Richard was standing in front of me, with all his faults and glory. I could see him taking Cyprus, arriving at Acre, bantering with his friends, leading his troops into battle. I sat with him in his tent as he struggled to balance crusader and king. I felt faint when he battled fever and illness. I lived in Outremer over the past few weeks, and unlike the poor crusaders, I loved every minute of it.
One of the things I absolutely love about Penman is her attention to research. She is painfully meticulous about accuracy, and her work has made me a historical fiction snob. I can't stand it when authors veer off the historical record for no good reason. The book was no different - and her research showed that there was little about this extraordinary man's life that had to be invented! Some of the most absurd scenes are lifted directly from contemporary chronicles and eye-witnesses - proving that life is stranger than fiction, and that history is, after all, the best story there is.
Perhaps one of the greatest things that intrigued me about this story is how little has changed in 800 years or so. This piece of land is still the most hotly contested area in the world. The same religious pulls are still there. Richard's peace talks and treaties with Saladin could have taken place today with many of the same difficulties. On both sides, there are still those factions that are too busy fighting amongst themselves to ever come to a conclusive peace with the other side. As was the case eight centuries ago, personal agendas, religious zeal, and strong opinions keep the peace talks in a constant state of both motion and stagnation. And Jerusalem still stands, after thousands of years, as the point of contention for three major world religions. Ain't nuthin' new under the sun.
I was also pleased to see Penman include accounts of the treatment of the Jews during Richard's time. Everyone knows of things like the Holocaust and the Spanish Inquisition, but some lesser known incidents, such as the attacks that occurred in England during Richard's reign, have been swept into the vast vault of history. I was glad that someone took these stories out, dusted them off, and displayed them for the world to see. These are stories that need to be told and understood - and they give yet another piece to the puzzle of the complexity of the fight for the Holy Land.
Truly, Lionheart is a masterpiece. I was both anxious to finish it and sad to see it end. Now I have to find other things to occupy my time until the next volume of Richard's life comes forth, A King's Ransom. Thankfully, there's that huge Amazon box I got over Christmas break to keep me occupied...
Scale of 1-5: 6!
What's up next: Beautiful Outlaw by John Eldredge
Top Five TBR:
1. The Confessions of Catherine Medici by C.W. Gortner
2. To Defy a King by Elizabeth Chadwich
3. Israel: A History by Martin Gilbert
4. Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff
5. Erasing Hell by Francis Chan