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Oct 23, 2012

Here Be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman

by Sharon Kay Penman

Here Be Dragons (The Welsh Princes Trilogy #1) by Sharon Kay Penman
Originally published by Holt 1985, Ballantine paperback shown
Paperback 704 pages
Review book is from personal collection
Burton Book Review Rating:4.5 Stars

Thirteenth-century Wales is a divided country, ever at the mercy of England's ruthless, power-hungry King John. Then Llewelyn, Prince of North Wales, secures an uneasy truce with England by marrying the English king's beloved, illegitimate daughter, Joanna. Reluctant to wed her father's bitter enemy, Joanna slowly grows to love her charismatic and courageous husband who dreams of uniting Wales. But as John's attentions turn again and again to subduing Wales--and Llewelyn--Joanna must decide to which of these powerful men she owes her loyalty and love.
A sweeping novel of power and passion, loyalty and lives, this is the book that began the trilogy that includes FALLS THE SHADOW and THE RECKONING

Most medieval historical fiction readers immediately recognize Sharon Kay Penman as one of the leading writers of our times. She has had a following for the last twenty years in the genre, and much of what I can say here has been said before so I will attempt brevity. Knowing that Here Be Dragons was book one in the Welsh trilogy, I had assumed it would be something close to Edith Pargeter's Welsh novels, which I had once attempted but was bored to tears. Turns out, this novel is really more focused on Joanna who was the illegitimate daughter of the ruthless King John. Even though the narration shifts around from character to character, it mainly follows Joanna's life as she grows from poverty to being recognized as daughter of the English king and then married to a much-respected Welsh prince.

There are many characters in the novel who appear or are mentioned, the aging Eleanor of Aquitaine, her assumed gay son Richard the Lionheart, the people behind the forces that do battle between Wales and England, and there are even some French politics thrown in for an all encompassing look at the 13th century. Most surprisingly, it is through Joanna's view of her father that we can sense a bit of a humanized King John, who is often seen as a murderous and diabolical king. This portrayal of King John was entertaining and appreciated, and the love Joanna bore for her father was often at odds with her husband Llewellyn's desires for his own kingdom. It felt as if the main theme was the marriage of Joanna and Llewelyn, and their desires, which might put some readers off as it begins to feel like a romance novel.

Eventually, Joanna gives children to Llewelyn, and so the politics of Wales becomes a heavy topic in the book, as Llewelyn's first born son from another marriage is threatened by any male heirs that Joanna gives his father. We cannot but wait for Davydd and Gruffydd to come to arms against each other in the name of Wales, but first Davydd must grow up. There were characters that I had no problems despising, from Gruffydd and his wife Senena, to Maude de Braose who ended up eating her words. ;)

Joanna's character is easily likable, until she commits a sin so grievous that I had an issue with even continuing the book. It is no fault of Penman's writing for the reality of Joanna's betrayal, but somehow because of this act and the ebbing of the book's flow, it wound up that the book's ending had little dramatic emphasis for me. I hate the saying, 'it fell flat', but it seems that in the end, it did fall flat for me as I fell out of love with Joanna. However, for the first 600 pages I was enthralled. I was hoping that we would see some resolution to the ultimate fight of Llewelyn's sons, but that didn't happen either. So it is with this question that I look forward to book two, Falls the Shadow.

See more of my thoughts (and others) at HF-Connection for the Fall Read Along.