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46 of 51 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Quality Penmanship, 27 Dec 2011
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This review is from: Lionheart (Hardcover)
One of the best things about the publication of a new Sharon Penman novel is that feeling of security which creates even higher anticipation - the consistency of her level of writing over the years has built up a real store of trust amongst her readership. Unlike some authors where a new release is met with anticipation mixed with nervousness by readers to discover if it will be a sensation or a flop, we know ahead of time that we're safe with one of Sharon's novels, we know that we're always going to get the high standard of research and writing that Sharon delivers. What a relief in the frequently hit and miss world of historical fiction!

I was intrigued ahead of time about how Penman would portray the very different worlds of Sicily, Cyprus and Outremer, compared to the familiar settings in her novels of western Europe, but in treating these locations and their unique environments and cultures with as much care and detail as she does our old stomping grounds of Wales, England and France, Sharon Penman creates these new places just as thoroughly and believably. As per usual, Sharon is tackling a political situation of intense complexity, with a veritable cast of hundreds of characters, but again by rendering this deftly and carefully she keeps everything clear and understandable. This is a point of particular importance for me, since so many historical fiction authors shy away from conveying the full story when the history gets complicated, and it seems to be out of fear that readers just won't understand and will then slam the book for being too confusing. Not once during the course of reading Lionheart did I feel confused or have to go back and re-read due to bewilderment. I cannot stress enough just how much this contributes to the overall quality of the writing. Precision with clarity - it's a winning combination.

Since I'm touching on the subject of historical accuracy already, a few more words on the matter: it's as high as one would come to expect from a Sharon Penman novel, and as ever the author's note - always a welcome courtesy in historical fiction - thoroughly addresses discrepancies and furthermore provides a wonderful glimpse into the research process of an historical novelist. Moreover, it reinforces that sense of trust, by creating a certain degree of openness and transparency, and the extensive bibliography was a joy for me as an historian, as I can now do the same research for myself on the points I loved in the novel and want to find out more about.

I think one of the key points of anticipation was wondering how Penman would portray Richard. We'd seen him as a prince before, got insights into his early years and glimmers of the man he would become, but you just know that everyone was waiting for the Lionheart king of semi-legendary status in the modern British consciousness to appear on the stage. What's wonderful about the character of Richard in this novel is that we get a rich blend of the larger than life figure and the real man - there's no mistaking Richard's military prowess and leadership presence, with an occasional dash of pomp and circumstance, but the down to earth, grounded man is also readily apparent, and the story is woven full of marvellous moments of private humour and personal intimacy. This is something I've said before in another review of a Penman novel, but you really believe that this could be the real Richard. I think this is another one of the big secrets of a great historical fiction novel - part of the fun and appeal is the idea of a glimpse into what really happened, and what our most fascinating historical people were really like, and getting this right is treading the line between immersion and disengagement. It's about believability.

It's not just Richard either - though his significance in this novel was such that I felt I had to address the point of his portrayal separately - but all the characters are a delight. Henri, André, Eleanor, Joanna, Berenguela... it's the subtlety in the way these characters have been built up. One of my favourites scenes has to be the dinner between Eleanor, Berenguela and their party and Constance and Heinrich and their party, after a chance meeting. It's simply magical. The political groundwork is set in place, the joy of knowing that this chance meeting actually happened and is not an implausible author invention, and Eleanor's moment to absolutely shine, drawing on all her past experiences and vast political acumen. I can't credit Sharon Penman enough for being able to write the subtle scenes of political discourse equally as well as the action scenes of chaotic battle.

Lionheart ticks all my boxes of what I look for in historical fiction: sophisticated writing, subtle characterisations, historical accuracy, and a coherent and compelling plot.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 20 Mar 2012 22:22:27 GMT
I have to agree with the latter part of paragraph 2 of this review.

Posted on 29 Mar 2012 12:18:41 BDT
J. Phillips says:
I endorse everything in this review, and would only add that, Lionheart reads as well as any history written about him while bringing the characters so alive it is as if you were watching them on some secret time travelling high definition CCTV! Ms Penman reminds me of Checkov, the way she brings her characters to full rounded life with unerring psychological insight, that makes them real, and yet allows the reader to watch them from their own viewpoint. She has Checkov's compassion for human frailty, seeking to understand them rather than to judge, and thus allows you the reader to have a view of them in the round as it were, while doing here uttermost to keep to the know facts. In Summary, this is as close to history brought vividly alive as one can get.
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