It’s still taking a while for me to get through my current read (Christendom Destroyed). Since I’ve been pondering the right time to review and discuss Sharon Kay Penman’s Welsh Prince trilogy series, I figured I’d use my writing time this week to begin that. We’ll start with the first book in the series, Here Be Dragons.
Historical fiction, done well, is great reading ad I enjoy it no matter what era it covers. Having only a rudimentary and peripheral knowledge of the 13th Century conflicts between the English and Welsh, this book also gave me the opportunity to do some educational digging. It is a practice of mine to check the authenticity of any historical fiction I read, and Penman does an admirable job of keeping with the spirit of life in 13th century England and Wales. Alas, it is historical fiction, so a plot summary is in order.
Wales was a country where royal title did not automatically pass from the ruling prince to his eldest legitimate son. Illegitimate sons were given equal rights to claim inheritance as their legitimate brothers and as such, it was a kingdom in constant turmoil and conflict.
Wales is a small country of proud people and a culture often at odds with those of England, to whom their princes must often swear allegiance in order to keep peace in their country.
More accurately, these truces are for the purposes of keeping peace with England, which is constantly encroaching with the express intent of making Wales a permanent English territory. There was hardly ever real peace in Wales because its princes were instigating civil wars rather than unifying to keep their beautiful and exotic country sovereign and out of English hands. Penman describes it thus:
Theirs was a land of awesome grandeur, a land of mountains and moorlands and cherished myths. They called it Cymru and believed themselves to be the descendants of Brutus and the citizens of ancient Troy. They were passionate, generous, and turbulent people, with but one fatal flaw. They proclaimed themselves to be Cymry—’fellow countrymen’—but they fought one another as fiercely as they did their English neighbors, and had carved three separate kingdoms out of their native soil.” Prologue, pg. xi
In 1283 England finally seized full control of all Welsh territory and went to great lengths to wipe out what was left of the culture of the people there, whom they considered barbaric and primitive, and making it fully English. The title Prince of Wales was not always held by an Englishman.
However there was a brief period in Welsh history when the country was unified under the leadership of one powerful and charismatic prince, Llewellyn the Great, and it is this era which Penman uses as a starting point for her novel, Here Be Dragons.
Llewellyn earned his place as ruler of Wales in battle and by brokering a peace with his brothers. He then marries Joanna, the illegitimate daughter of England’s King John to form an alliance, however fragile, with the English crown. After a rocky start to the union, Penman weaves together a great love affair, which becomes inevitably stressed when tensions rise between Llewellyn and the English king, who insists on treating the Welsh Prince as his vassal.
While the story of Joanna and Llewellyn is central to the story, what drew me into this book was the family dramas, political intrigue, fierce battles, and descriptions of daily life in 13th century England and Wales. I was frequently engrossed with the well offered descriptions of natural beauty, perhaps because I live in the midst of suburban sprawl.
The stark differences in the ways of government, family, and marriage rights in the two countries was fascinating as well, as I bothered to fact check Penman’s work. This isn’t to say that I agreed with Welsh law, but was fascinated that such laws existed.
I like this book because it was fast paced without being a facile, and it was historically authentic.
It has romance in it, and some racy stuff at that. However, I would not categorize it as a romance novel as it can just as easily be categorized as an adventure story, or a war story.
There are however a few times where you’ll need to turn the page if you’d rather not be so assaulted with sexual details. It’s easy enough to do and the book is such a well written one that I simply will not refrain from commending its worth.
Content advisory is in order here:
Sex: Yes, and more than wee bit. Once you get a clue for when it’s heading in that direction, you can just skip ahead a few paragraphs; sometimes a page. It’s how I handle it. See my reading standards page for my position on sexuality in books.
Language: It’s 13th century Wales. Nothing that would offend modern sensibilities.
Gore: Penman is very graphic in her descriptions of war battles, injuries and death. I actually appreciated this aspect of the book.