When writing historical fiction, don’t forget to include the fiction: Lionheart by Sharon Kay Penman

By Sharon Kay Penman
MacMillan, 2011

In Lionheart, Sharon Kay Penman continues her saga of the Devil’s Brood — the warring children of Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine. This installment focuses on King Richard I who set off to the Holy Land, leaving England under the uncertain guardianship of his brother John. Yes, that King Richard. That brother John. Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham don’t appear in this book, because Penman’s fictional account isn’t that speculative, but I enjoy a good historical narrative, even ones in which the outlaws are all aristocrats.

I hadn’t read much about this time period in England’s history (other than Robin Hood, of course), so when I came across this book at a used book sale, I thought I’d give it a try.

King John of England. Shifty-eyed even in effigy. (Photo via Wikipedia)
King John of England. Shifty-eyed even in effigy. (Photo via Wikipedia)

With her initial focus on King Richard’s sister Joanna, Joanna’s orphaned ward Alicia, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and King Richard’s eventual wife Berengaria, Penman seems to promise that her novel would give me a glimpse of the Crusades through the eyes of four women who unexpectedly found themselves going on one.

At first, Penman holds true to that promise, but her interest in her female characters and the challenges they face in this aggressively male world fades as the Crusade progresses. Ultimately, she more or less shoves the women aside so that King Richard can get to the very important business of fighting skirmishes and negotiating an end to the war with Saladin.

That’s ok for a while, because the presence of King Philip II of France creates plenty of friction among the male characters. Unfortunately, when King Philip abandons the Crusade and returns to France (that’s not a spoiler — that’s history), he takes a great deal of the interpersonal conflict with him. The book devolves into a reporting of near daily battles and the give and take of negotiations conducted primarily through second parties.

Perhaps the easiest way to demonstrate this loss of intimate perspective would be to share with you a couple of excerpts from the book. For the first portion of the book we are treated to a story that reads like this:

“Joanna had begun to pace, wondering if there was any chance England might intercede on Constance’s behalf. No, that hawk would not fly. Her father would no more aid the son of the Holy Roman Emperor than he would ally with the Sultan of Egypt. Turning, she saw that Archbishop Walter was looking at her in befuddlement. He seemed surprised that a woman could have any understanding of political matters. Did he think she’s never discussed statecraft with William?”

The last third is dominated by text that reads like this:

“The Saracens retreated before Leicester’s charge, withdrawing across the River Ayalon and heading back to the Judean hills. This had become a ritual by now, with both sides knowing their roles, and the young earl prudently halted pursuit as they approached the west bank of the stream. But three of his men had forged ahead, caught up by the exhilaration of the chase, and they suddenly found themselves surrounded by the enemy. When another knight alerted the earl that they’d been captured, Leicester let out a scalding burst of profanity that even Richard might have envied, calling the knights bloody fools, misbegotten dolts, and accursed half-wits. He still felt honor bound to rescue them and gave the command to advance.”

You can see why it lost me.  The first quote grounds the narrative firmly within the unique perspective of one of the main characters. Here Penman makes excellent use of the fiction part of historical fiction.

Effigy of King Richard I (c. 1199) from Fontevraud Abbey, Anjou. (Image via Wikipedia)
Effigy of King Richard I (c. 1199) from Fontevraud Abbey, Anjou. You get the sense his subjects liked him better. (Image via Wikipedia)

The second quote reads like an third person account from a history text, and its impersonal tone distances me quite effectively from the story. I could pick up any moderately well-written history book and read it with the same level of enjoyment. Reverting to third person exposition may allow Penman to recount events relatively efficiently, but her narrative suffers for it. In the last portion of her novel, she faithfully reports the history, but she seems to have lost the thread of the fiction.

I only have about 100 pages left — I’m on page 482 of this 577-page tome — so I may yet finish it. But for now, I’ll shelve it where I can see it and remember that when writing historical fiction, I can’t get so engrossed in the history that I forget the fiction.

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