Why this book
I picked this book up at my local library the other week. I have read a lot of Sharon Penman's Historical novels about the Middle Ages and Eleanor of Aquitaine and was intrigued by this book as it was a mystery novel set in the middle ages rather than a history novel so I thought I would give it a go and it didn't disappoint.
About the author
Sharon Penman was born on the August 13, 1945 in New York. She is an American historical novelist, of Anglo-Irish ancestry. She is most well known for her novels and mysteries about English and Welsh royalty during the Middle Ages. She is know for her for meticulous research of the characters, settings, and events she presents in her fiction and for this reason I am sure she has won several awards for her books, prior to being an authour she had studied both history and law and became a tax lawyer.
About the book
This is the third book in a mystery series featuring Justin De Quincy. He is referred to as the "Queens man" as he undertakes scert missions on behalf of Eleanor of Aquitaine.
It's July 1190 and Eleanor son Richard the Lion heart is being held captive and a huge ransom has been demanded for his liberty. Eleanor has raised huge taxes to pay for his freedom. When part of these taxes go missing in Wales she sends Justin to investigate what has happened to the wool and other ransom goods. He travels first to Chester and then on to Rhuddlan castle in Wales to investigate what happened and to try to return the ransom to pay for Richards release. During his investigations he has to meet at times with his father the Bishop of Chester which causes problems for Justin. He also ends up crossing paths with his other enemies Prince John and Durand de Curzon. Can Justin find the ransom and avoid being killed in the process?
Sharon Penman's writing style is not for the faint hearted. She writes in rich detail about all aspects of the time and this includes any grizzly bits. She is in my opinion one of the best historical novelist around because she combines very well historical and knows facts with characterization of the figures of history. This book unlike many that she write is definitely more fiction than historical fact and though there are real historical figures in the books it the fictional characters in this book that have centre stage.
I was expecting this mystery book to be similar in some ways to Cadfael which is set in similar times but the middle ages is really the only thing they have in common really. Though Cadfael has seen the world a bit before becoming a monk Justin is much more worldly wise and is a very sexual character too. Also rather things happening at a gentle pace as they do Cadfael this novel is a lot grittier and with more political intrigue.
I think Penman simply has an exceptional gift to portrait humans and their feelings and this conjures them to life on the page for you to read. She hasn't fallen into the trap of the conventional wisdom about the time and its people (Richard - good, John - bad) instead we see them as the complex people that they were. The scene involving John as well has showing the grasping for power we also see elements of a sardonic wit from him too which is also how she has written John in the historical novels such as the Devils Brood.
She also writes about the struggle across the Welsh marches, the beauty of Wales and the strength of its people in a very compassionate way. She beautifully illustrates the fall of Davydd and how he is struggling to maintain his power as the king in Wales against the enigmatic and more intelligent Llewellyn.
Though this book is a mystery novel with a few twists and turns the "who do it" as it were is a little obvious from early on in the book, but the reasons for some people getting involved is less clear though. Despite this flaw the book is still a very enjoyable read.
The book is well researched and her appraisal of the events and this turbulent time in history are well chronicled and illustrated. The politics are explained in a way that makes them easy to understand and believe you me the politics of this age in history make a spider's web look easy to untangle
One of the things that I like about the book is the authors notes at the end which tell you some of the reasons for her choice of inclusions of some points and omissions and explaining her research.
This book though in a series does stand alone as a book and you would enjoy it even if you haven't read the other books. But I would suggest that they are best read in order to help you understand the points in history and characterization of some of the figures and their relationships with one another.
I would recommend this book to people who enjoy mystery novels and history novels too. The book is very well structured with wonderful characters that leap off the page to you. The politics and the scenery of Wales are also admirably penned.
Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: Michael Joseph Ltd (29 April 2004)
Available from Amazon Market place from £2.64